Do Not Become That Which You Despise

So, as basically everyone knows, Donald Trump will be inaugurated as President of the United States tomorrow.  Like all inaugurations, there is a great deal of pageantry involved.  And, as has been the case numerous times before going back to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, there will be a prayer service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.  The National Cathedral is the cathedral for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, as well as serving (as the name implies) in an informal way as the closest thing we have to house of prayer for the entire country in a place as religiously diverse as the United States.  In addition, it appears that the choir of the National Cathedral will be singing in some capacity at the inauguration itself.

I have made my views clear on the idea of the presidency of Donald Trump, and nothing that has happened since Election Day has changed my position one iota.  I do not and will not celebrate Donald Trump becoming the President of the United States.  Nevertheless, I have no objection to the participation of the National Cathedral in the inauguration.

This would seem, however, to be a contentious position.

Those that oppose the action of the National Cathedral seem to fall into two camps.  The first, and seemingly smaller, camp objects to the notion of a religious body participating in the civil government and its ceremonies at all.  I respect this absolutist, almost Mennonite, approach to the separation of church and state, but I do not share it.  I think there is a role for public religion to play in the broader civil society.  And, as noted above, the National Cathedral has been involved in Presidential inaugurations before, and in many ways the raison de etre of the National Cathedral is for things like this.  If there should be an absolute firewall between religion and civil government, then the National Cathedral really shouldn't exist, at least not in its current form.

The other, more common reason for objection is the notion that the Cathedral should refuse to participate in the inauguration of Trump because he is Trump, and because of the things he has said and has done.  In other words, while it was perfectly OK for the National Cathedral to hold similar services for Barack Obama twice, it is not OK to do so in this case.  On the merits, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, lays out the case against that position far better than I could or would.  As an aside, I have praised Bishop Curry on a couple of different occasions and my admiration and even fanboy-ism of him just continues to grow.  Anyway, I think he is 100% right in what he says here.  The Dean of the Cathedral also gave a thoughtful statement along similar lines.

Again, I understand the anger and the fear and the desire for action that motivates those that oppose the National Cathedral having anything to do with Trump and the Trump inauguration.  But the anger and fear is what worries me about this reaction--I fear it is leading well-intentioned people down a self-destructive path.

James Alison gave a talk in December at Trinity Wall Street Episcopal Church in downtown Manhattan about the election and its aftermath.  Every bit of the presentation is worth-while, but if you scroll ahead to the end at the 1:27 mark, Alison makes a point about what he calls "the dangerousness of the Good."  It is very dangerous, Alison argues, to construct a narrative grounded in the idea that I am, or we are, the Good Guys.  It's dangerous because that narrative becomes a kind of armor that we put on to shield ourselves (in our own mind) from the consequences of our own actions.  If I am Good, then the things I do are by definition Good, and thus not really subject to critique.  Narratives of our own Goodness are blank checks to do things that we would never otherwise accept in ourselves.

I think the reaction to Cathedral-gate is a good example of Alison's principle in action.  Progressive Mainline churches like the Episcopal Church proudly trumpet, and in my mind rightfully so, the notion that they are inclusive bodies--whoever you are, whatever your background, whatever traditional markers of unworthiness you might have, there is a place for you in this church and in our community.  So goes the story they tell themselves.  But, here's the thing--"all" means "all," which means that includes Donald Trump and the people who support Donald Trump.  If your definition of "inclusivity" means that "I won't tolerate people within the circle that don't agree with me," or worse "I won't tolerate people within the circle who tolerate people that don't agree with me," then you don't really believe in inclusivity, no matter how horrible you think those people are, or even how horrible they actually are.  Having "unless they are wrong about stuff" as an out-clause to inclusivity swallows up the rule.

This is particularly true when we apply these principles to a progressive Christian context.  The schema of "Jesus and the church love and include everyone, unless of course you are X and believe Y, because of course those people don't count" is precisely the thing that progressive Christians accuse conservative Christians of doing.  At its heart, those that take issue with Bishop Curry's approach are saying, "Donald Trump, and the people that support Donald Trump, should be unambiguously shunned by and from our churches and our common life as a result of what they believe."  How is that any different, structurally, from "gay folks, and the people that support them in their lives together, should be unambiguously shunned by and from our churches and our common life as a result of what they believe"?

The answer given is "because Donald Trump and his ideas are bad, and our ideas are good."  Yes, I agree that Donald Trump is bad and his ideas are bad.  But the action being taken is the same either way.  The justification for this that you get is "because we want to have the Episcopal Church be seen as standing in opposition to Donald Trump and his program."  Notice that excluding Trump from this service is not a substantive opposition to his policies, as he is not inhibited from doing whatever he will do by virtue of not having a service at the National Cathedral.  Instead, what is desired here is a symbolic demonstration of a body's collective Goodness--"because we are righteous, and Donald Trump is not, we want to show the world this reality with a public statement."  And that desire to be publicly Good is more important, implicitly, than the principle of inclusivity, which previously had been a touchstone of both belief and practice.  In effect, the message is that it's OK to cut corners on inclusivity when the important work of being Good is at stake.

Cutting corners on inclusivity is a dangerous precedent.  We should always and everywhere keep this in mind--progressives are just as susceptible to scapegoating and in-group vs. out-group behavior as conservatives.  And, arguably, they are more susceptible to Cult of Victimhood thinking and processes, since they take the concept of victims more seriously.  This is not about whether progressive are right about the various causes for which they might advocate (and, again, I think they are right), but about a reality about the way human beings work psychologically.  Being right is not a shield or a talisman that wards off our inherent human tendency to build up the Us and cast out the Them.

Alison offers an alternative to these public demonstrations of Goodness with his idea of resistance.  Resistance in this context means using the experience as a tool to learn to be purified of our own idolatry, our own self-righteousness, our own need to be right, our own need to be the Good Guys.  It is internally focused as opposed to the laser-like insistence on outward signs and expressions.  None of which means that you need to, or should, collaborate with systems and structures you believe to be wrong.  None of which means that you should not be willing to take substantive actions to stop injustice.  But we should be deeply, deeply suspicious of these sorts of public demonstrations of our righteousness couched as protest.   

There is a real danger, in the hothouse and conflict that is here and almost assuredly is to come in the Age of Trump, of progressives and progressive Christians becoming the thing they despise--narrow, exclusionary, fixated on purity markers, self-righteous.  I feel like the Age of Trump is going to be a test for everyone in a host of ways, and one test that is likely to come will be around the question of being inclusive.  Is inclusivity really about a broader and less judgmental way of structuring our common life together?  Or is it simply a polite code for replacing one checklist delimiting in-versus-out with a different set of criteria?

Maybe, as the Cathedral Dean suggests, having Donald Trump present at a service with a broad swath of the population will demonstrative a civility and magnaminity that will rub off on him.  I highly doubt it, but maybe it will.  What is more important here than who Trump is or will become is who we are.  Is this crucible going to be a chance to purify ourselves so that we can be stronger and more loving?  Or is it going to kindle yet another blaze of indignation and exclusion, on top of the multitude that are already burning?


Another great part of Alison's talk can be found here in his discussion of "hope versus optimism," especially the pithy quote "indignation is the most useless of emotions."


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