(RNS) — Joe Biden and Donald Trump both visited churches over the weekend, a common practice for presidential candidates in the lead up to an election.
Yet their experiences showcased not only dramatically different forms of American Christianity, but also contrasting examples of how religion can intersect with politics.
According to pool reports, Biden, a Catholic, attended Mass Sunday morning (Oct. 18) at St. Joseph on the Brandywine in Greenville, Delaware — a church he has often attended over the years. Reporters traveling with the candidate were kept on the bus, and the priest overseeing the service did not appear to acknowledge the candidate’s presence during his homily, which was livestreamed.
The former vice president and his wife, Jill, reportedly attended the service for about 40 minutes. They then exited — both wearing masks — and spent a few moments at the grave of Beau Biden, Joe Biden’s son who was buried at the church after dying from brain cancer in 2015.
President Trump, meanwhile, attended the International Church of Las Vegas, where he was welcomed by husband-and-wife co-pastors Paul Marc and Denise Goulet and Associate Pastor Pasqual Urrabazo.
Although the president has attended religious services with far less regularity than Biden, it was his third visit to the non-denominational evangelical church, a fact pastors mentioned while referring to Trump as a “member” and “family.” One of his past appearances occurred just days before the 2016 election, when Denise Goulet prayed over him and said she received a prophecy that God had prepared the then-candidate “for such a time as this,” a reference to a verse in the biblical Book of Esther.
This time Trump, who identifies as a Presbyterian, was introduced during the opening prayer and worship segment of the service while dancers onstage twirled American flags emblazoned with an image of the Statue of Liberty.
As music played, Denise Goulet declared to the congregation that God had told her that morning the president would receive “a second wind.” The term, she said, had three meanings: Trump would be re-elected, he would be re-energized physically, and he would be filled by the Holy Spirit.
“(God) said to me that you were the apple of his eye,” she said, addressing Trump. “He is protecting you like he is protecting the ancient foundations of this nation.”
After Paul Goulet declared, “I don’t care what anyone says — I love my president,” he, Denise Goulet and several people onstage began shouting “you’re doing a great job!” to the president. The president, unmasked, stood among a close crowd of both masked and unmasked congregants.
Paul Goulet then moved on to his sermon, which included repeated references to Trump. At one point, he pulled out his phone and read a list of things he wanted to thank the president for. The list included the president’s executive order hampering the enforcement of the Johnson Amendment, a portion of the U.S. tax code that prohibits nonprofit organizations such as churches from explicitly endorsing candidates; giving “a voice to the unborn”; moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem; and choosing judges who “stand for conservative and Judeo-Christian values.”
Paul Goulet shouted “whoa!” after referencing judges. The congregation erupted into cheers.
The pastor — who, along with Denise Goulet and Urrabazo, has participated in events at the White House during Trump’s time in office — also recalled attending Trump’s acceptance speech for the Republican nomination in August, which took place on the White House lawn. He claimed that when he left the event, he encountered a “riot” in the streets of Washington, D.C., and that protesters cursed at him.
“Some of my old hockey nature started coming out,” said Paul Goulet, a onetime hockey player originally from Canada, as he raised his fist.
Other evangelical supporters of Trump have recounted similar stories about that evening. Arguably the most famous instance was caught on camera, although it told a more complicated story: conservative Christian author and radio host Eric Metaxas was filmed punching a protester off his bike. It was several days until Metaxas admitted to striking the demonstrator, who had been shouting expletives to the crowd of Trump supporters. The protester threatened to file a civil case against the author.
Paul Goulet praised Trump throughout his sermon, sometimes making direct appeals to God on Trump’s behalf.
“I’m not here to talk about this man, but he happens to be here, and I want to honor him and affirm him — because when I appeal to the King, I appeal for him,” he said, pointing at the sky before pointing at Trump.
As Goulet concluded in prayer, the pastor said he saw a vision of Trump holding the Statue of Liberty’s torch and “lighting a bright light for God and for all those who believe in a good America, a noble America, a righteous America.”
“We back you 100 percent,” he said.
Paul Goulet then handed the president a microphone to address the congregation.
“I go to many churches, and I love going to churches,” Trump said.
The president appeared to echo the pastor, saying, “We are with you 100 percent,” before adding, “We have a group on the other side that doesn’t agree with us, you understand that.”
Paul Goulet laughed and pumped his fist as Trump encouraged those in attendance to get out and vote.
As Trump left and the service drew to a close, Paul Goulet threaded the president’s visit into an evangelism effort.
“We said ‘yes’ to our president coming,” he said. “Would you say ‘yes’ to Jesus?”