WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump is seeking to invoke religion to bolster his law and order image during the civil unrest in an appeal to evangelical and Catholic conservatives, two groups he routinely turns to when he's facing strong criticism.
Trump, not a regular churchgoer, this week stood outside St. John's Episcopal Church across the street from the White House, holding a Bible aloft, and the next day visited a shrine to Saint John Paul II where the president and his wife, Melania, posed solemnly in front of an altar.
Those events were meant to serve as contrast to his demands for a tough, militaristic response to the violent demonstrations across the country for some conservative religious leaders, even as they deeply offended more liberal ones.
White evangelical and Catholic voters make up a third of the population of the key battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Trump won those states in 2016 by a combined 77,000 votes over Hillary Clinton.
This time, Trump faces Joe Biden, a practicing Catholic and Pennsylvania native with broader appeal to white, working-class voters than Clinton had. On the same day that Biden visited the Bethel AME church in Delaware on Monday and expressed sympathy with those protesting police violence, Trump visited St. John's.
In doing so, Trump sent a signal to those culturally conservative voters that he's on their side of the societal divide ripped open by a week of unrest.
What started as peaceful protests that erupted over the police killing of a black man in Minneapolis have exploded into rioting, arson and looting in cities across the U.S., giving those suburban and rural voters frightening images of urban violence piling on to the pandemic and high unemployment.
By shining a spotlight on vandalism and arson of churches instead of the root causes of the violence, Trump is speaking to the resentments of some conservative Christians who have said they are feel besieged by hostile -- and even violent -- cultural forces.
Trump all but acknowledged the connection on his way to the Shrine of Saint John Paul II, tweeting a two-word phrase used by Richard Nixon to appeal to law and order voters amid Vietnam War protests: "SILENT MAJORITY!"
Republican strategist Chris Wilson said it's a winning message for Trump, who has proved adept at connecting almost any issue to his support for religious conservatives.