The inauguration and the clergy

Donald Trump has assembled quite a line-up of clergy to pray or lead readings from the Scriptures at his inauguration. From Cardinal Timothy Dolan to Pastor Paula White to Rabbi Marvin Hier, there will be no shortage of supplication to the divinity on Jan. 20. Pardon the expression, but Lord knows we need all the prayers we can get.

There has been relatively little criticism of the decision by Cardinal Dolan to participate. Glen Argan, at his lively blog, objected to the cardinal's presence. "What I don't get is why bishops continue to allow themselves to be hornswoggled into baptizing the powerful," he asked. "It gets to be particularly galling when the office-holder they bless has a political program that goes directly against the Gospel and the teachings and actions of the current pope."

Argan's gall is misplaced. There is a long history of Catholic leaders praying for the leaders of the nation beginning with our first bishop, John Carroll, whose prayer for the country and its leaders still reads well: "We pray Thee O God of might, wisdom, and justice! Through whom authority is rightly administered, laws are enacted, and judgment decreed, assist with Thy Holy Spirit of counsel and fortitude the President of these United States, that his administration may be conducted in righteousness, and be eminently useful to Thy people over whom he presides; by encouraging due respect for virtue and religion; by a faithful execution of the laws in justice and mercy; and by restraining vice and immorality." From what we know of Mr. Trump from his campaign, righteousness, virtue, justice and mercy will only be achieved through some kind of divine intervention. But when you get right down to it, is that not true of us all?

The tradition of Catholic clergy participating in an inauguration is of more recent vintage. The first was 1937, when Msgr. John A. Ryan, director of the social action department at the bishops' conference, offered the benediction at Franklin Roosevelt's second inaugural. Ryan did not step over any line by participating in that civic event, although a case can be made that he did cross the line when he gave a campaign speech on national radio for FDR the week before the election! Cardinal Richard Cushing prayed at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, as he had presided at his wedding and would later conduct his funeral. Cardinal Terence Cooke prayed at both of Richard Nixon's inaugurals. The last Catholic prelate to participate in a presidential swearing-in ceremony was Archbishop John Roach of St. Paul, Minnesota in 1977 when Jimmy Carter took the oath of office. Roach was the president of the bishops' conference at the time.

There is a difference between "baptizing the powerful" and praying for them, especially when the powerful person in question was elected by a free vote of the citizenry. Catholic clergy should always be willing to pray at public events when asked, whether that be a labor meeting or a session with the National Association of Manufacturers. Does Trump represent such an enormous break from tradition that a Catholic prelate should have declined?

We do not really know the answer to that question yet. Yes, he said all manner of vile things during the campaign; and to his credit, Cardinal Dolan criticized Trump for his nativist anti-immigrant rhetoric. But no one really knows whether or not to believe half of what comes forth from the president-elect's mouth, let alone from his Twitter handle. There is a possibility that the photo of Cardinal Dolan with the new president will become an unfortunate memento. There are plenty of photos of French hierarchs posing with Marshal Pétain. By the time those photos were taken, Pétain's fascist credentials were undeniable. Trump's are in prospect.

More interesting than Dolan's participation is that of Pastor Paula White, an aficionado of the "prosperity gospel." Now, I understand that different people can read the same passage of Scripture and come away with wildly different understandings. My colleague Tom Roberts and I not only read the same Scriptures but also pray the same prayers at Mass, and our ecclesiologies are vastly different. When I was researching my biography of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, I continually found myself in a spiritual and intellectual world that was self-evidently Christian but also deeply unfamiliar.

But there are limits. The "prosperity gospel" is no off-shoot of Falwell's fundamentalism. Pastor White's apostolic pedigree is in a line with that of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. The preachers of this bastardization of Christianity proclaim a distortion of the Gospel that is complete, and instead of bringing Christian hope to the afflicted, they exploit poor and uneducated people with promises of material and earthly rewards. The Christian Gospels clearly establish that the poor have a claim in justice upon us all, but the "prosperity gospel" crowd doesn't talk much about justice. They talk about rewards. You could remove some of the biblical citations and turn any one of White's sermons into an ad for a customer reward program with an airline or a credit card: Call Jesus by name and get a dollar back!

The "prosperity gospel" also finds its roots in another aberrant train of thought, the "power of positive thinking," that we associate most famously with the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale who once led the church that Trump occasionally attends. Peale was also a vicious anti-Catholic who denounced the prospect of Sen. John Kennedy's election to the presidency because of the senator's faith. His denunciation prompted one of the all-time great quips in American political history when the genuinely devout Adlai Stevenson commented, "I find the doctrine of St. Paul appealing, and the doctrine of Rev. Peale appalling."

At RNS, Mark Pinsky, who has reported on evangelical Christianity with insight and aplomb for years, has a brilliant analysis of why the president-elect feels an affinity with Pastor White. In both cases, there is a fascination with shiny things and surface appearances.

The presence of Pastor White at the inauguration, like that of Cardinal Dolan and the other religious leaders, should not offend our political sensibilities. But White's presence should offend our Christian sensibilities. I am not surprised that Mr. Trump is hot for a counterfeit of Christianity: Her participation is, in its own way, appropriate to the moment.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]​


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