In the last "Saturday Night Live" episode of the year, Alec Baldwin’s faux-Donald Trump is handed a list of all the performers willing to participate at the presidential inauguration.
“They’re both great,” Baldwin says, as he looks at the tiny scrap of paper on which the names are written.
In contrast, the list of acts unwilling to appear would likely fill up a lengthy scroll, which is why the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s acceptance of President-elect Trump’s invitation has generated a great deal of controversy. When the news broke, my Facebook feed erupted with indignation, as many of my friends saw this as a de facto Mormon endorsement of Trump's controversial campaign.
I found the news somewhat depressing, not because I agree with that assessment, but rather because I recognize that this is how the choir’s performance will be interpreted by many. It shouldn’t be, as the choir has performed at five other inaugurations for presidents of both parties, beginning with Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson’s inauguration in 1965, according to a news release from the choir. If the choir had turned down Trump, that would be a partisan decision. It would also open the door to every appearance of the choir being viewed through a political lens, which would add an unnecessary complication to an organization that is committed to spreading goodwill across the globe, regardless of political affiliations.
Consider the choir’s appearance in Berlin in 1955, which required it to travel through Russian territory during the height of the Cold War. The performance took place roughly six years prior to the construction of the Berlin Wall, which means that many in attendance were ardent communists. Back then, it’s unlikely that anyone would have presumed that the choir’s visit behind the Iron Curtain should be interpreted as an endorsement of the Soviet Union or communism in general.
When the choir arrived at the Berlin train station, it was greeted by a German choir singing “For the Strength of the Hills” and “Let the Mountains Shout for Joy,” according to a blog post at mormontabernaclechoir.org. The Berlin choir director turned to everyone in the station, and the crowd all joined in the singing. It was a memorable emotional outpouring that had a profound impact on all those present.
“I stood in the midst of that throng,” said Herold L. Gregory, who was serving as the East German LDS Mission president at the time, according to the blog post, “and I want you to know the tears would not be held back. I have never had a more glorious experience in my life. Here we were, these people of vastly different background and tradition, looking questioningly into the eyes of each other. The singing was in two languages, yet there can be no doubt that the music was in one language, the language of the heart. To me, those few minutes at the station were as important and glorious as the concerts themselves.”
That kind of unity is evidence that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has a unique mission and purpose, which transcends the day-to-day mundanity of politics. That’s a kind of unity that our country sorely needs right now, particularly in light of a deeply divisive election season. Like it or not, Donald Trump is going to be the president of the United States and whether or not we agree with him, we need to find a way to come together as a nation and look for those things that can bring us together rather than tear us apart. If the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s appearance at the inauguration can help in that process, then it will be well worth it.