In the week since the Mormon Tabernacle Choir announced its decision to accept an invitation to perform for the casino magnate and strip club pioneer cum president-elect at his inauguration, an enticing but nevertheless misleading narrative has emerged in response to the kerfluffle:
[T]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. [Source]
The implication is that since the Choir sang for the inauguration of a Democrat over 50 years ago, singing for a nominal Republican in 2017 couldn’t possibly be a partisan decision. I believe the historical record shows that this conclusion is not well founded.
You see, LBJ carried Utah in 1964. This may seem incredible to those of us who grew up after the culture wars heated up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but before Mormons became reliably Republican they used to vote for Democrats all the time, starting with Roosevelt and his New Deal (!) in 1932 and continuing on through 1948 with Truman. A Johnson win in 1964 was not out of character with Utah politics at the time, so the fact that a notable Utah choir would sing for Utah’s candidate who made it to the White House is hardly a generous gesture of studied non-partisanship across the political divide–it’s just celebrating the victory of your man in the race.
Of course, a single data point doesn’t make a trend, so let’s continue our historical survey. Since 1968 the string of Utah victories for Republican presidential candidates has been unbroken. And when the candidate who carried Utah became president, the Choir performed for that man: Richard M. Nixon (1969), Ronald W. Reagan (1981), George H. W. Bush (1989), George W. Bush (2001) and now Donald J. Trump (2017).
I don’t have a fundamental problem with supporters celebrating their win and feting their candidate. If the Choir were off to Washington to represent all that is great about Utah and conservative politics it might still offend the thin-skinned liberals who feel that the Choir should represent more than that, but it is an argument that would at least hew closer to the historical record.
But that’s not what the church spokesman is claiming:
The choir’s participation continues its long tradition of performing for U.S. presidents of both parties at inaugurations and in other settings, and is not an implied support of party affiliations or politics. It is a demonstration of our support for freedom, civility and the peaceful transition of power.
This is a noble vision, but one that I’m afraid is built upon a foundation of sand. In the same article linked above, the reporter noted that
The invitation to participate in a sixth inauguration grew out of a visit to the Mormon Tabernacle on historic Temple Square in September by Donald Trump Jr.
Peay said Trump Jr. took a one-hour tour of Temple Square in September with Gentry Beach, a Dallas investor who was a key Trump fundraiser, and Mark Geist, a Marine who was part of the annex security team in Benghazi, Libya, when the U.S. government facility was attacked in 2012. The group also included Ret. Gen. Robert C. Oaks, a former general authority Seventy of the LDS Church.
Yes, that Gentry Beach, one of the guys selling access to the newly-minted President Trump at the “Opening Day 2017” event the day after his inauguration. It turns out that Mark Geist endorsed Trump long before it was cool, and of course we all know what the former ecclesiastical leader Robert C. Oaks thinks about the president-elect: “Trump’s values are solid, he believes in family, country, military strength and individual rights, and he is willing to put forth the required efforts to protect these values.”
Given the partisan provenance of this invitation I have a hard time believing that the men involved in the Choir’s decision to accept were motivated solely by freedom, civility and the peaceful transition of power. All of those things can be celebrated in ways that don’t endorse the man who spent his campaign railing against them.
This isn’t a time for the Choir to jettison principle in order to avoid appearing partisan–that horse has bolted anyway. Then again, that’s easy for me to say–I don’t have much skin in the game, just the reputation of a Church for which I’ve devoted most of my adult life to support. Certainly not as much as Jan Chamberlain, who took the difficult choice to resign membership in a choir she loved before compromising her own values.
Look, if conservative members of the Church want to fete a man whose “values are solid,” that’s up to them. But let’s not turn tacit endorsement of the man who boasts about his sexual conquests of women using language that filtering services were built to protect us from into anything more than another example of the sway politics has over principle. You know, lest we put darkness for light, and light for darkness.