I did not vote for President-elect Donald Trump.
For reasons too numerous to articulate in this forum, I abhor Mr. Trump’s demagogic style, and I have grave concerns about what a Trump administration means for the future of constitutional democracy.
It’s perhaps little surprise then that I found myself applauding the act of conscience by Jan Chamberlin who recently resigned her membership in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir after it accepted the invitation to perform at President-elect Trump’s inauguration ceremonies in Washington this month.
And yet, I also found myself at odds with more strident critics who have called the choir’s decision to perform a fundamental betrayal of “Mormon values.”
The issue is in fact more complex.
It’s undoubtedly a Mormon value to oppose what I view as brazen immorality, irresponsible rhetoric and misguided appointments that threaten individual liberties, including the rights of women, people of color, religious minorities and the poor. But it is also a longstanding Mormon value to be good citizens. It is literally an article of faith for Latter-day Saints to be “subject to kings, presidents, rulers and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”
Sustaining and participating in civil government does not necessarily dictate that the Tabernacle Choir perform at inaugurations. Sometimes a principled refusal to cooperate with political leaders is the most patriotic thing we can do. But this nation will falter if half of its citizens perpetually treat the current president as an occupying force worthy only of their disdain and resistance. Particularly at this moment, then, the choir’s acceptance of the invitation can be seen as a sincere gesture of goodwill and as a token of good citizenship.
To be clear, I personally sympathize with those who interpret being a “good citizen” as strongly objecting to positions that contravene public virtue. My Mormon values have fundamentally shaped my personal opposition to the president-elect. On the other hand, I acknowledge the fact that Mormonism, like most other value systems, is not unitary or monolithic. It’s a faith that inspires members of both sides of the aisle and beyond.
When it comes to the public square, we should not impose a religious purity test. After all, no presidential candidate is perfect and no candidate has ever been universally acceptable to Latter-day Saint voters. Presumably, many Mormons would have been similarly incensed had the Tabernacle Choir agreed to sing at the inauguration of a President-elect Clinton.
This demonstrates at least two things. First, Latter-day Saints are more diverse than commentators or even insiders often admit. Second, as soon as religion enters the public square, things can get messy. For nearly four decades, the religious right has wanted Americans to believe that there was only one way for religiously serious citizens to vote. They were and are wrong. But it’s just as simplistic to suppose that a religiously serious person (or an entire choir full of them) must altogether avoid any and all associations with the incoming Trump administration.
Another one of Mormonism’s pre-eminent values, which allowed it to survive decades of persecution and then thrive over the past century, is pragmatism. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, the LDS people, like any other group of citizens, have an interest in making friends with policymakers — even the ones they may criticize based on principle.
Although I believe, like Chamberlin, that the choir’s participation violates certain core Mormon values, at the same time I recognize that its decision is consistent with other longstanding Latter-day Saint values such as good citizenship, pragmatism, generosity and friendship.
I am not prepared to offer the incoming administration the hand of friendship, which includes the risk of co-optation, guilt by association, and lack of solidarity with those who feel marginalized and threatened by him and his advisers. But friends can say hard things to one another that would never be heard by someone perceived as an enemy.
At this point, the die is cast: Trump will be inaugurated, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir will sing.
If a few patriotic songs at one of the nation’s great celebratory rituals earns the Mormon people any standing with the Trump administration, then I hope that those same Mormon voices will be emboldened to speak and stand for the values that are also enshrined by Latter-day Saints as an article of faith: honesty, truth, benevolence, virtue and doing good to all people.
Patrick Q. Mason is the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies and an associate professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University.