“To Be, Rather Than to Seem”: Mr. Trump’s Inauguration and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

“To Be, Rather Than to Seem”: Mr. Trump’s Inauguration and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir December 23, 2016


MoTab and OTS
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Orchestra at Temple Square, in the Salt Lake Tabernacle  (LDS.org)


I have no privileged access to the reasoning of leaders of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with regard to the Choir’s acceptance of an offer to sing at the inauguration of Donald J. Trump and Mike Pence.  But I think that I can imagine pretty well, at least in part, what it must have been.


When the invitation arrived, these leaders must immediately have realized that it placed them in a dilemma.  To have the Mormon Tabernacle Choir prominently featured at Mr. Trump’s inauguration would seem to be making a political statement.  On the other hand, to have refused the invitation would not only have seemed to be a political statement, it would actually have been one.


But the Church doesn’t make partisan political statements.  As far as I’m aware, the Choir has now been invited to participate in six American presidential inaugurations — those of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and George H. W. Bush.  It has accepted every single one of them.  It has performed for both Democrats and Republicans.  The First Presidency has welcomed John F. Kennedy and Dick Cheney and Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama and many others to Church headquarters in Salt Lake City.  Members of the First Presidency and/or the Twelve have represented the Church at presidential inaugurations for both Democrats and Republicans (and have met with the leaders of a host of countries, from Indonesia to Bolivia, from China to Israel).  It’s wholly unreasonable and unjust to construe such events as partisan endorsements.


To sing at Mr. Trump’s inaugural will no doubt seem, to some, to be an endorsement of Mr. Trump.  However, to refuse would, unmistakably and unambiguously, be to repudiate not just him but, in a sense, his legitimacy as president.  It would be an unprecedented political declaration by the Church.


But, some will say, various prominent stars have declined to perform at the ceremonies.  That is, of course, their right.  They have absolutely no obligation to be or to seem nonpartisan.  But the Church does have such an obligation, both legally and ethically.


Consider the precedent that a refusal would set:  If the Church and the Choir were to decide that Mr. Trump’s character and policies put him beyond the pale of legitimacy in this case, Church and Choir leadership would need to enter into a similar calculus in all subsequent cases, as well.  Does President-Elect X’s position on immigration render him unworthy of the Choir’s singing?  Is President-Elect Y’s stance on Russian adventurism too accepting (or too rigidly opposed) for the Choir to be permitted to sing at his inaugural ceremonies?  Do President-Elect Z’s personal acts and habits render him or her ineligible for Choir participation at the presidential swearing-in?


The controversies would recur every time an invitation was extended.  They would be loud and bitter.   Partisans would have a field day.  The internet would light up.  It would be unspeakably ugly.


Now, obviously, there’s a line beyond which the Church and the Choir could not go.  Presumably, for instance, if the nation decided to elect the clear contemporary equivalent of Pol Pot or Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin, they would have to say No.  And some may imagine that we’re in precisely that situation right now.


I, however, do not.


Please understand:  If you’re unaware of how early, consistently, and vocally I opposed Donald Trump, you haven’t paid any attention to my blog.  I disapprove of him on just about every possible level.   I didn’t vote for him.  I’m crossing my fingers that he won’t be a major national disaster.


But I think that the Church and the Choir reacted to the invitation for the Choir to participate in his inauguration in the best way that they could, under the circumstances.


I also didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton.  As I’ve explained many times here, I’m a serious political conservative, trending libertarian (with a small “L”) on economic and several other matters.  But, had Mrs. Clinton been elected and had the Choir been invited to sing at her swearing-in, I would have supported their going.


The fact is that the American electorate and the Electoral College have spoken.  Donald J. Trump has been legitimately elected president of the United States of America.  I deeply wish somebody else had been — I can think of many men and women that I would have preferred — but there you have it.  To coin a phrase, It is what it is.


Some have said that having the Mormon Tabernacle Choir perform at Mr. Trump’s inauguration “feels bad,” that it gives off a “bad vibe.”  I understand that.  Believe me, I do.  But that’s because, for many of us who regard him as (to list just a few of our objections) an ignorant, unprincipled, unconservative, bigoted, intellectually uncurious, amoral, self-obsessed, xenophobic, insecure, authoritarian demagogue — I’ve probably left a great many important things out — his inauguration as such “feels bad” and gives off a “bad vibe.”  The fact remains, though, that America’s voters and our system have delivered the White House into his very small hands, and that we’re going to have to live with it for the next while and to hope for the best.


Since I was a fairly young teenager, I’ve been fond of a Latin phrase that goes back to Cicero’s On Friendship (De Amicitia):  Esse quam videri (“To be, rather than to seem”).  It is, or has been, the motto of a very great number of organizations, ranging from the BYU Men’s Chorus to the State of North Carolina.  I didn’t know that when I was young, and I can’t recall how or where I came across it.  But I’ve even used it, from time to time, as a personal motto.  As I see this situation, the Church might have preferred not to have had the Choir invited to participate in the 2017 presidential inauguration.  I can easily envision that.  Once the invitation arrived, however, Church and Choir leaders had the choice of seeming to be political neutral or actually being politically neutral.  I believe that their choice of the latter was right and proper.


Your mileage may differ.  But in that case, of course, you’ll be wrong.


P.S.  I’ve posted two prior comments on this topic:


“Mormon Tabernacle Choir to Sing at US Presidential Inauguration”


“Another thought on the Trump inauguration and the Tabernacle Choir”



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