Washington National Cathedral was founded in 1907 and envisioned as a “Westminster Abbey for America,” which, in part, is why it finds itself at the center of controversy about its role in President-elect Donald J. Trump’s impending inauguration.
For more than a century, the cathedral has tried to stand in two worlds at once, attempting to be both a practicing Christian church and a gathering place for American civic expression. As the cathedral’s former dean, I believe that fidelity to the former role now requires rejecting the latter.
For much of its life, the cathedral experienced the tension inherent in playing two roles as creative but not potentially destructive.
But much has changed in American religious life over the past 110 years, and the cathedral has found it increasingly difficult to have it both ways.
After World War II, Christians began seriously to reflect on their relations with the prevailing culture. How could our religion square its validation of oppressive regimes (Protestants and Catholics in Nazi Germany, mainline Christians supporting segregation in the American South) with the principles of love and justice exemplified and articulated by Jesus?
Over the course of the past 75 years, it became impossible to see the church’s mission as compatible with its traditional role of endorsing the status quo. We began to see ourselves less as “Christendom” and more like the early church that stood up to Rome.
In the same way, American public and religious life has changed dramatically over the course of the cathedral’s life.
The Episcopal Church, once a powerhouse of American religious leadership, now comprises less than 2 percent of the population. At the same time, the increasing ethnic and racial diversification of America has brought with it a growing religious pluralism.
In light of the multifaith community we Americans all now inhabit, does it not seem anachronistic for one Christian cathedral (albeit a distinguished and beautiful one) to presume to call itself the “spiritual home of the nation”?
I believe Trump’s election has proved that the cathedral’s attempt to continue this religious/civic balancing act is no longer tenable.
In his words and actions, Trump has shown himself to be outside the bounds of all mainstream norms of Christian faith and practice. His often-expressed xenophobia and misogyny, not to mention his mocking of the disabled, and admission of abusive behavior, place him well outside the values of compassion and respect for human dignity that mark historic Christianity at its best. It is simply inappropriate to use a precious institution such as Washington National Cathedral to suggest that the church bestows its blessing on a leader so obviously beyond the pale of Christian thought.
The cathedral’s dilemma exemplifies this watershed moment in the Christian church’s role in American public life. The community that claims to follow Jesus must choose between its role as what our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry calls “the Jesus Movement” and its long-standing practice as the validator of the status quo. With Trump’s election we cannot, with any integrity, be both.
If the church is going to be faithful to Jesus, we must (as he did) stand as a force of resistance to unjust and oppressive civil authority. We cannot use the words, symbols, and images of our faith to provide a religious gloss to an autocrat.
Although it is considered by some an extraordinary step for the former leader of an institution to criticize a decision made by its current leaders, I am doing so because I believe that the cathedral’s decisions to host this service, and to allow its choir to sing at the inauguration itself, have provoked a crisis within not only the Episcopal Church, but the entire American Christian community. I hope that the depth and extent of the reaction will occasion some extended reflection about what it means to be “a great church for national purposes.”
To deny Trump’s right to be feted in Washington National Cathedral is not to say “he is not our president,” nor is it to say “we should not pray for him.” I pray for the president- and vice president-elect every day. I will continue to do so during their terms in office. I simply do not believe that the most visible symbol of compassionate faith in America should lend itself to endorsing or espousing their shrunken, fearful vision of our national life.
I hope that the cathedral will soon return to its primary role: proclaiming an inviting, inclusive, just, and liberating vision of the gospel to all Americans and the world.