The choir loft of the Washington National Cathedral. Photo courtesy of Francisco Daum via Creative Commons

Washington's National Cathedral should not bestow a blessing on Donald Trump

(RNS) 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.

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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.

Washington National Cathedral on June 12, 2015. Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow

Washington National Cathedral on June 12, 2015. Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

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.

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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.”

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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.

(The Rev. Gary Hall served as the 10th dean of Washington National Cathedral from 2012-2015)

(Editor's note: The Washington National Cathedral declined to provide a response to this commentary)

Comments

  1. A cathedral is the ultimate symbol of Christendom. The “early church that stood up to Rome” had none. If the Episcopal Church considers its past “anachronistic” and wishes to become countercultural, let it forsake cathedrals. The story goes that, as he was showing Thomas Aquinas the glories of the Vatican, Pope Innocent IV remarked: “The Church can no longer say, silver and gold have I none.” Thomas replied, “Nor can we say, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk.”

  2. Former Dean Hall questions whether the National Cathedral should “presume to call itself the ‘spiritual home of the nation.'” That was of course the term used during his term as Dean, and only now, after he has abandoned his well-paid position as dean, after an unhappy presidential election where many of us were unhappy with the choices, does he chose to attack the institution he once headed, and he does so by questioning the very description of the Cathedral he once presumably endorsed. He is a great example of folks framing their opinions based on the outcome of the election.

  3. Mr.Hall, were you in charge when Islam was allowed into the cathedral to desecrate it with prayers to their idol? http://www.christianpost.com/news/national-cathedral-hosts-islamic-prayers-lone-protester-interrupts-service-129726/
    Did you denounce this atrocity as against Christian faith, also?
    ” Trump has shown himself to be outside the bounds of all mainstream norms of Christian faith and practice. 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. ” Islam shows little, if any respect for women – as the 300 school girls Boko Haram kidnapped, raped, and impregnated don’t need to be told about. Or the Christian children being burned alive in houses, by Islam, because they were Christian? That shows more compassion to you? That is more within the bounds of Christian faith, to you?
    Do you agree with the Islamic honour killings of family as within the bounds of “Christian faith”?
    I’m not certain that I completely agree with Trump, but, God is responsible for him being voted in, and it’s time to grow up and accept that fact.
    Quran (9:30) – “And the Jews say: Ezra is the son of Allah; and the Christians say: The Messiah is the son of Allah; these are the words of their mouths; they imitate the saying of those who disbelieved before; may Allah destroy them; how they are turned away!”
    That is in the Holy book” of the people who you allowed to profane your cathedral. Was that during your watch? What did you do to stop that abomination, Sir?
    Your assembly itself rebels against God by condoning homosexuality. Islam throws homosexuals from buildings – do you consider either of those Christian?
    Trump is a fallible man – just like you. Grow up.

  4. The former Dean is taking far too much credit for the role of National Cathedral in our nation’s collective spiritual consciousness. The Cathedral may be symbolic, but in the end it is just mortar, bricks, and stone; and we know ultimately what Jesus thought of icons such as these. In that sense the Cathedral is a dowager whose time has passed. It would be just as well if no such “blessing’ took place, because as the former Dean points out, true spirituality is much more dynamic than tired forms that have lost their meaning and vitality.

  5. Automatic up-vote, of course. You did a good post there.

    I was going to post something too, but I decided to delete mine — there were too many words like “Excommunication”, “Exorcism”, “Ex-Lax”, and various other acerbic alliterations in there.

  6. Praise the Lord. Thank you. (edit) they should have heard from you too, floydlee

  7. It’s almost like you have no understanding of…well, anything.

  8. No, thank you. Thank you for your stellar contribution to our collective conversation. I mean, where would we be without sweeping stereotypes and slanderous talking-points from Breitbart? Do you actually have to read Trump’s tweets to be able to repeat his rhetoric? Or do they just beam that stuff right into your cerebral cortex?

  9. Shame on you! Mark 2:16-17 (KJV) And when the scribes and Pharisees saw him eat with publicans and sinners, they said unto his disciples, How is it that he eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners? When Jesus heard it, he saith unto them, “They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

  10. Just out of curiosity, do you think Jews and Muslims should be able to use a public hospital chapel for prayers?

  11. Dean Hall is shaping his views to the flavor of the day. He was dean in 2013 when the Cathedral hosted Obama’s inaugural prayer service, and gave no indication he had any misgivings about that. Certainly, if the Cathedral can host a Muslim prayer service — when Islam rejects Christianity as a false religion — then it can host the 2017 inaugural interfaith prayer service.

  12. Surprising article here. I have been in the Cathedral when Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims etc… all offered their collective prayers. To suggest that the cathedral is a defender of Christian faith is simultaneously laughable and tragic. The Episcopal Church is commited first to an ecumenical view that crosses the line from respecting other faiths to embracing them as another “truth.” If the cathedral wants to reject a service for Trump then do it on the plain grounds of ethical differences and not on the integrity of the faith.

  13. Not directed to me but I will say yes. Public “chapels” can be used by any faith. The former dean’s problem here is that he’s pretending the chapel is something other than it is – a defender of Christian thought and practice. It is clearly not. I’m not saying they have no fondness for their own heritage, only that they have no commitment to it currently. (Note the 39 articles of faith.)

  14. this is not a chapel in a hospital. This once was a christian church

  15. They should host a service and offer Trump a baptism ritual including a golden shower with altar girls from Scores !…he’ll love it

  16. When Christians have to chose, going with the “original program” becomes, it seems to me, the obvious moral imperative–(thinking of Bonhoeffer, Merton, King, Day, and so many others….). Thanks for taking this stand.
    Mary Rakow, Ph.D., novelist

  17. Washington Cathedral shouldn’t be putting on ceremonies for presidents who aren’t Episcopalian. Period. No political judgement here. And the last of those presidents was George H. W. Bush.

    In the UK, the Church of England does coronations for kings and queens in virtue of their membership in the Church of England and role as heads of the Church and Defenders of the Faith. Let us do likewise.

  18. The National Cathedral has “bestowed a blessing” on all the past presidents who have chosen to use it for worship, a prayer service or any other meeting with religious overtones. Democrats and the other “never Trump”ers need to get over the fact that their favored candidate didn’t win their party’s nomination or the general election. Donald R. Trump has been duly elected to be president of the United States, and is entitled to whatever blessings our National Cathedral might bestow on his leadership of this great country.

  19. The Episcopal Church is morally bankrupt. They have thrown out the Holy Bible and followed whatever they thought would make them popular. Small wonder they continue to shrink. I will celebrate the day when they disappear entirely.

    I am sure that if Donald Trump was an open homosexual, he would be welcomed with open arms!

  20. Yes, that is the only thing that counts anymore, doesn’t it? Never mind that Episcopalian. Never mind that the Episcopal Church has changed so much over the last 75 years that it wouldn’t be recognizable to the faithful of that era. Total, nothing except conservative politics is a sin. Pretty much anything else goes.

  21. “Christians?” Good luck finding any at this church. Any church that allows Muslim worship in your sanctuary has lost all sense of Christianity.

  22. Funny how no one else, in articles, comments, etc. wants to quote the Koran. Why is that? Because lots of people believe it to be true and should be followed? How convenient to bury your head in the sand and scream La La La and hope everything is all better. If you can’t refute it, but just simply call names, it means you have no credible answer.

  23. I am deeply troubled by Trump and his election, but I am also deeply troubled by this commentary by a former dean of the National Cathedral. I have struggled with the question of whether to pray for DJT publicly by name in the Prayers in my own parish, but have increasingly come to the conclusion that a refusal to do so is the wrong approach. We must pray for the President, even as Jesus commanded we pray for our enemies. And while the gospel has political implications, the refusal to bless this President has partisan implications. He needs our prayers and God’s blessing to strengthen his virtues and minimize his vices. Thank God this is the *former* dean. Listen to our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s encouragement to pray publicly for DJT. This is the truly godly way forward. Then let us go immediately out and oppose every ungodly action at every turn.
    -J. Brent Bates, Grace Church in Newark, NJ, Episcopal

  24. Christ sat with the scribes and Pharisees to CONVERT them. Christ would NOT have advocated other religions using a JEWISH Temple. Christ was not making the scribes and Pharisees on the same plane as a righteous follower of Christ.

  25. The Washington Cathedral should NOT dignify the Trump inauguration in any way. Trump is antithetical to the best Christian teachings and traditions. — Edd Doerr

  26. I think the major conflict is a concern that it might be perceived as an endorsement of his policies/tweets/whatever. I believe it’s a good thing to pray for the pres-elect. Blessing him? Does that = approval? How about blessing his efforts to create an American for the [Beatitudes list here]?

  27. Well its not like it would do any good. Even most Christians here can’t quote the Bible in context or accurately.

    I would chalk it up to the dearth of Muslim posters present. Much like we don’t see people quoting Buddhist and Hindu texts here. But thanks for pointing out how slanted the posting is towards one given faith.

  28. It would have been prudent of you to google her before you jumped to any silly conclusions.

  29. How well said. Thank you for pointing out so much truth!

  30. Never mind your problem with Donald Trump, Gary Hall.  Or don’t you have a much bigger problem to worry about?  Like dealing with your own problem with yourself that, many claim, has caused the demise of Washington National Cathedral – long before Trump had even announced his race for the presidency.  How’s that going, by the way?  That bad, really?  So you’re telling me that you’ve written this piece of anti-Trump/pro-Killary propaganda for nothing more than your own face-saving vanity?  “Sad” (to quote you-know-who).

    Oh, you don’t know what I’m talking about?  Not even the following grievances against you?

    (1) “If they (at Washington National Cathedral) are only projecting that they are for white, upper-class liberals who live in Northwest (D.C.), that’s the only audience they will reach …  If it can’t be supported by the local community it will continue to struggle.” (Jeff Walton, Anglican Program Director, the Institute of Religion and Democracy, Washington Post, August 18, 2015)

    (2) Actually, Gary Hall is the one who has “limited the church’s appeal …  (He) seems to have been unaware of the scope of fundraising and budgetary challenges that he would necessarily confront. Instead, the cathedral dean delighted in inserting the church into any national news story he could find, from gun control to the Confederate flag. …  (All the while he’s) unaware of thriving new evangelical and immigrant congregations populating Washington, DC’s religious landscape.” (Jeff Walton, Anglican Program Director, the Institute of Religion and Democracy, Christian Today, 23 August 2015)

    (3) “the doctrinally and politically liberal (Gary) Hall was highly successful in raising his church’s profile in a certain edgy niche of the Washington establishment – a rich and prosperous one, however …  (There are) many personal ties between … the local Episcopal establishment and the (Washington) Post team, two institutions that appeal to very similar flocks inside the Beltway.” (Get Religion, August 19, 2015)

  31. We EPISCOPALIANS focus on a great many things and yes while something like a stained glass of R.E. Lee may draw some focus it’s not the be all end all. As to the numbers game. We may have less in numbers. but it’s not quantity that counts but quality.

  32. He’s entitled to the constitutional powers of the presidency. No one is obligated to grant him any more than that.

  33. You’re AGAINST Christianity and its teachings and traditions!

    Who the hell do you think you’re fooling?

  34. I’m sure the Rev. Hall would have had no problem if it had been Clinton that was being inaugurated instead of Trump, in spite of her clear lies and corruption.

  35. As an Episcopalian I fully support Rev Hall’s position and have sent Bishop Curry an e-mail calling for the Church to distance itself from Trump as he is nothing but a hate manger, bigot, misogynist, and all around advocate of anti-Christian values.

  36. The Washington National Cathedral has long positioned itself as a “house of prayer for all people,” which makes it much more than merely an Episcopal church. From its start it has been used for state occasions of great moment, and it is entirely appropriate that it should host a prayer service for the new President. However, it is unprecedented to send choristers to Capitol Hill to participate in the secular inauguration ceremonies, and the decision to do so has caused an uproar among the entire cathedral family, including former choristers and acolytes like myself, and members of both St Albans and NCS. Dean Hall’s comments are well taken, though I disagree with some of the theology he articulates. The fact is, whether you agree with Dean Hollerith or not, the very fact that his decision has caused such a huge uproar should be indication enough that it was a wrong-headed one. He could easily have declined the invitation to send the choristers to Capitol Hill and all this would have been avoided; but his decision to participate in this way has caused a level of divisiveness within the larger community that I have never seen since my first days in the junior choir in 1958.

  37. Ignore the trolls, if you can, Rev. Bates. I am surprised that their comments, full of hatred, arrogance, insults and disdain, are allowed in this forum. As to your own comment, I am all in favor of praying for every president, and for having an inaugural prayer service at the cathedral for President Trump. But I am vehemently opposed to Dean Hollerith’s decision to send choristers to Capitol Hill. THAT was a very bad decision.

  38. You quite simply do not have a clue. ALL Christian denominations have declined especially in the Millennial generation. As long as calvinists, dominionists, evangelicals, and fundies promote religions of hate the decline will continue.

    Now your offensive and ignorant posts only serve to show you are in serious need of Christian Education. Locate a main stream church which keeps the Lectionary alive and take as many classes as possible. With grace & hope your eyes will be opened.

    BTW, Nam disabled vet and holder of a research based doctorate. Consequently do not try to use twisted data in your posts again.

  39. I should be immune to the shock which occurs when I read such as the above. I know there are Trump supporters who wallow in evil constantly because of their inability to be equal to and their extreme need to be superior and feel above mere humans, but to actually read something one of them wrote with “God is responsible for him being voted in and it’s time to grow up and accept that fact..” reads as though it was written by Satan himself. May God forgive you your blindness, your heretical beliefs and the evil you are spreading to others. If subscribing to his beliefs is what “growing up” means – may I always remain a child. “Suffer the little children to come unto me….for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

  40. It is a serious question about Donald Trump’s election. Most presidents are elected by Americans voting. Hillary Clinton received 2.9 million votes more than Donald Trump and she did that without Vladimir Putin working for her, but she did that with his combining with Donald Trump’s efforts. In spite of that Trump “won” the Electoral College by some 80,000 votes. A figure that could very well have been caused by Russia’s intervention in the American election. All of the ugliness spewing on this page is exactly like the filth that poured out pushing Mr. Trump’s candidacy. Instead of accepting his own sins – he projected them onto Hillary Clinton and some folks – who have this very sick need to be superior to all who are not like them – bought it. He pushed his candidacy before he announced by spending years claim that Barack Obama was not an American citizen and sometimes he did it in ways that probably have made some of these posters proud. I am sure they are just as reviled at an African American being president as the rest of us are at a man who admitted his sexual abuse of women; who used the myth of Obama’s birth to put together the KKK, the White Nationalists and all the other bigoted groups and people he could gather together to put together a campaign which then even had to include help from Russia (a protagonist at best, an enemy at worse of the U. S.) to make his run for president. When there were not enough of those he padded his rallies with paid actors and others with instructions on how they should act. Given that, I wonder if some of those posting here are not among that paid group. When evil surfaces and tries to take over this is what we have – an “Orange” president on his way to turning “Red” and attempting to bring along as many others as possible. The one thing this conversation shows – state and church don’t mix. One has always been used to give credence and credibility to the other and with the National Cathedral that is exactly what is happening. The filth spewing up from that fact simply proves our Founding Father correct when they wanted a country which did not allow state and religious belief to mix.

  41. He is “entitled” to that only unless and until his election has been proved to be illegitimate and happened because of the intervention of foreign powers and irregular actions.

  42. Actually, I sometimes quote the Koran when I’m speaking out against the national evil of gay marriage, or when I’m refuting the liberal heresy that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

    Does that help?

  43. Silly me, I thought churches were built to spread the Gospel, teach love, forgiveness, and improve the lives of the congregation and others thru material, emotional and spiritual support. I also didn’t realize the National Cathedral was a Branch office the Democratic Party and K Street. I wonder how Hall will answer on Judgement Day when asked what he did, in his position, to heal his divided nation?

  44. Yes, but God is responsible for his being placed in office, and rather than whining like a child about it, grow up and accept the fact.

  45. Sitting here as an outsider, who hasn’t been in the Cathedral in 50 years, I am struck by the rampant hypocrisy on theses pages. Embrace every other belief, religion, no matter how conflicted those are with Christianity, but single out one person as not worthy ? I don’t go to church, but this article would sure keep me away, were I hunting for a place of worship.

  46. And , of course, not worthy of your prayers, forgiveness, and Christian love. No wonder atheism is on an unprecedented rise.

  47. What an unfortunate man. This is the problem with clerics without principles. They fall for the latest fad, the most recent movement, the current “cause celebre” I’d be fascinated by his comment on Sacred Scripture, if indeed he still believes in such a thing.

  48. My point was the way God is demeaned and really, are you talking about god?

  49. You are completely out of line and an offensive deplorable.

    Yes I’m a disabled Vietnam vet whether you accept the reality or not. By dismissing me you do the same to every current service member and all vets. In other words you are as anti-American as they come.

    BTW, world wide the Anglican Communion is steadily growing. Your misuse of data also displays your ignorance and complete failure to comprehend statistics. BTW, guess what, I have a research based doctorate and thus qualified to see through your inane writing. As to your writing it is at about the 6th grade level. You need to learn how to write a complete sentence and then a paragraph which is understandable.

    In other words you are a excellent example of a troll. Go back to your alt-right anti-American anti-Christian forums and no longer troll this or other legitimate sites.

    This is the last time I’ll respond to your rantings so save some time and just go away as you’ve already proved yourself an ignorant fool.

  50. The entire basis of your screeds is that if a church is shrinking and struggling then they obviously are doing something wrong. Jesus warned us against this type of thinking in Luke 13:4 when he pointed out that all have sinned and that we should not equate the struggles of others as a sign of their punishment for sin. The Christian Church in Nazi Germany – not the political church institution condoning the Nazis, but those that stood up for faith in Christ over nationalistic idolatry disguised as patriotism – were small and shrinking, too. Because they were not popular and were not rubber-stamping the popular culture, did they become irrelevant and lost in the dustbin of history? No. Many of those theologians, like Boenhoeffer, have become giants of modern Christian theology, not just for shrinking mainline denominations, but even for the supposedly more “successful” evangelical churches. Being popular by the standards of this world is the goal of pseudo-Christian churches packaged as a self-help prosperity Gospel, marketed and ready to be consumed. The true Church will always conflict with what is popular and acceptable, because the Gospel of Jesus is offensive to many of the self-righteous and powerful: the Gospel of the cross that can redeem even the most despicable; the Gospel of God in Jesus Christ being born to be in solidarity with the poor, marginalized and oppressed; and, the Gospel of grace that gives us resurrection and new life even when the popularity of Jesus’ message was lost and all his followers deserted him and left him to die. No, Mr. Cleats, popularity and numbers does not equal truth in the Gospel. And, even if Rev. Bates would have to work in a Starbucks, I bet he would preach Christ there, too.

  51. Romans 3:9-12 NRSV

    What then? Are we any better off? No, not at all; for we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written: “There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one.”

    Sounds pretty egalitarian and on the same plane to me.

  52. “He is a great example of folks framing their opinions based on the outcome of the election.”

    Heaven forbid!

  53. Sorry, but you lost the right to continue to call yourself a christian…

  54. I believe so. You can hold ethical positions without being a person of faith.

  55. I was raised in the Episcopal Church but it left me years ago and with the emotions of this article I find it continuing the journey further away from me and many others.

  56. The original name of Allah is Baal-Allah …this proves Allah and Elohim are not the same God.

  57. Yet you had no problem with prayers for a man that supports the dismemberment and slaughtering of infants in the womb nor for a man who supports two men or two women being recognized as “married”. You had not a problem with offering blessings upon Bill Clinton, a man that has raped and killed children in Satanic sacrifices, along with Hillary. Then again, your Anglican ordination rite was declared “absolutely null and utterly void” by the late Pope Leo XIII, so you aren’t really even part of the presbyterate and have no power to confirm, bless, consecrate, offer sacrifice, forgive sin, or administer the sacraments.

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