This article was originally published in the San Marino Tribune on January 20th, 2017.
January has been a civically freighted month as outgoing President Barack Obama delivered himself of a final speech in which he reminded us that every American has a personal duty to pursue the preservation and extension of democracy. He quoted George Washington, calling a new-born nation to reject “the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to infeeble the sacred ties” that bind us. The speech was inspirational, as the speeches of the 44th president often have been.
Conservative pundit David Brooks, never a fan of many of the 44th president’s policies, said last February: “Obama radiates an ethos of integrity, humanity, good manners and elegance that I’m beginning to miss,” and after the subsequent months of electioneering, Brooks’ sentiment is shared by a wide swath of the American populace. We are in hope that a more civil tone might increase and come to prevail as we contest over legitimate and necessary policy disagreements in months and years ahead.
A new chapter of American history commences with the January 20th inauguration of our 45th President, Donald J. Trump. The inaugural weekend will include a prayer service at Washington National Cathedral, the Cathedral Seat of the 27th Primate and Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, The Most Reverend Michael B. Curry, and the Cathedral Church of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. This will be the 58th Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service held in the Cathedral, and so the service is uniquely emblematic of the ties that bind politics and religion in America, and also of the tensions that infuse that relationship.
The history of the Episcopal Church (the American branch of Anglicanism) and of the United States are of a piece. On July 4th, 1776, the Rector of Christ Church, Philadelphia declared that the English King would no longer be mentioned in divine service, altering the Prayer Book, and writing in quill pen, “the people of these United States,” replacing the reference to the King. The Rector was soon arrested by the British and charged with treason. Over half of American presidents have been Episcopalian (Presbyterians are also historically well-represented among presidents, the religious affiliation of Donald J. Trump), and July 4th is a formal Feast Day in the Book of Common Prayer, reminding us that Independence Day isn’t a secular holiday, but, for Episcopalians, a religious observation.
While Inauguration Day is not a religious Feast Day, it embodies the American Tradition of the peaceful transfer of power, which holds sacred status in our civil sphere. January 20th, 2017 is a juncture when Americans lay aside partisanship and affirm the principles that make us a republic, a democracy, and a unified people despite, or perhaps because of, religious, ethnic and political distinctions.
In his book “Revolutionary Spirits,” Gary Kowalski writes: “In the political realm, liberalism has been the historic protector and promoter of human rights, carving out a zone of personal autonomy exempt from government intrusion or oversight. Culturally, liberals prize pluralism. A multiplicity of creeds and customs is the hallmark of a healthy society. In the spiritual domain, liberalism has been characterized by an attitude more inquisitive than inquisitorial, believing that religious truth best emerges from the free play of imagination and ideas. In all its forms, liberalism chafes against unwarranted restrictions on the human spirit.” That definition is broad enough to include a Radical Liberal like Thomas Jefferson, and a Conservative Liberal like John Adams.
President Donald J. Trump is my president, though he was not my ballot-box choice. We observe a great American Tradition this month in a peaceful transfer of power. We are summoned by the sacred ties that bind us one to another to contend for cherished values, and it is to be hoped that we do so with integrity, humanity, good manners and perhaps even with a bit of elegance. The prayer service at Washington National Cathedral reminds us that the moral quest so central to spiritual endeavor overlaps and infuses the political realm, and while pulpits and Altars are poor places for the crafting of specific public policy, they are essential to civil dialogue and promotion of the social good. Lift up your hearts in gratitude for the people of these United States, and gird your loins for the ongoing pursuit of our best ideals, offering prayers that wisdom might abide with the 45th President of these United States, Donald J. Trump, who now inhabits high office and assumes a weighty calling.