WASHINGTON (RNS) — When excerpts from Michael Wolff’s tell-all book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” were unveiled this week, a few sharp-eyed students of religion noticed a peculiar snippet about Jared Kushner.
In a quote attributed to the president’s Orthodox Jewish son-in-law and senior adviser, Kushner claims to have been ordained “an internet Unitarian.”
More specifically in the passage — revealed Wednesday (Jan. 3) in New York Magazine — Kushner says he can perform a marriage for MSNBC hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski thanks to this ordination.
“I can marry you! I’m an internet Unitarian minister,” Kushner is quoted as saying.
As it turns out, Kushner is, in fact, ordained — but not by “internet Unitarians.”
That appears to be a bungled reference — whether by Kushner or whoever gave the quote to Wolff — to the Universal Life Church, which has a robust online presence.
A spokesperson for the ULC confirmed to Religion News Service on Thursday that Kushner is, in fact, ordained by ULC.org.
“He’s not the only person to forget the name — a lot of people forget,” said George Freeman, presiding chaplain of the ULC.
The confusion seems to revolve around the term “Unitarian,” a word often used to describe members of the Unitarian Universalist Association and which sounds somewhat like the group that actually ordained Kushner.
But the UUA is not an internet-based tradition: Birthed from the fusion of different Christian groups in 1961, the denomination now preaches a much broader message of religious inclusion to around 200,000 members who worship at more than 1,000 congregations.
And while the UUA and the ULC do share a similar desire to incorporate various religious traditions, the similarities stop there. The ULC is not connected to the UUA, does not have worshipping congregations in the traditional sense and frequently ordains people across the country in a swift process that is conducted primarily online.
That compares to the ordination process of the “UUs” — as they sometimes call themselves — which is rigorous, takes years and isn’t exactly something you complete over the internet.
“A Unitarian Universalist minister must be ordained by a Unitarian Universalist congregation and then must be certified by the UUA’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee,” said Marchaé Grair, a UUA spokesperson who also noted that Kushner is not a UUA minister.
“UU ministers typically have a Master of Theology degree from an accredited seminary or theological school.”
Kushner is hardly the first high-profile individual ordained by the ULC. According to the Universal Life Church Monastery, others include Joan Rivers, Conan O’Brien and Stephen Colbert.
Xavier Wilkens, a representative of the ULC, said the ULC makes it easy for anyone to join as an ordained individual and that “a majority” of people who visit the site are seeking to officiate a wedding ceremony.
“There is a key component of ‘study’ that is the cornerstone of UUA ordination, and we take the opposite approach,” Wilkens said. “We don’t put any barriers in the way. We definitely encourage our ministers to engage in study to further the ministry, but it’s not a litmus test that we put in the way for joining the organization.”
Freeman noted that this policy is rooted in the ULC’s loose theology.
“We don’t hold any one religious belief in terms of deities,” he said. “Whatever deity you have, you get to keep.”
Freeman added he was personally opposed to at least one of the Trump administration’s actions: namely, the recent decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel, a region where Kushner has played a major role for the White House.
But when asked if he had any message for Kushner as the head of the ULC, Freeman kept his comments brief.
“Do no harm. And do the right thing. Tell the truth,” he said.
Calls requesting comment from the White House and TheSHUL — the Washington synagogue Kushner attends with his wife, Ivanka, the president’s daughter — were not immediately returned.
Kushner’s ordination remains a sideshow over the release of Wolff’s book.
Most of the initial news coverage revolved around the emerging war of words between the president and his former adviser, Steve Bannon.
A legal representative for President Trump has since sent a “cease and desist” letter to Wolff and his publisher, claiming lawyers were “investigating numerous false and/or baseless statements” within the book’s pages. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has called the book a “complete fantasy.”