(Mormon Sense) The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is being criticized by several prominent voices in response to the announcement that it will sing at the US Presidential inauguration on January 20, 2017. Yesterday, attorney Raul A. Reyes, who is a member of the USA Today board of contributors as well as a contributor to CNN, wrote an opinion piece entitled, “The Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s Trump-sized mistake.” The criticism by Mr. Reyes, and individuals like former choir member Jan Chamberlin (who recently announced her resignation over the issue), is understandable, but misguided. It also reflects a shallow and problematic temperament in modern America’s political discourse.
Mr. Reyes and Ms. Chamberlin attack the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for what they call, “a betrayal of Mormon values.” Reference is made to the President-elect’s alleged “bigotry” and “braggadocio.” Similarly, Judy Kurtz (Twitter: @JudyKurtz) recently reported for The Hill that “pressure” is growing on the “Mormon choir” and that “thousands” are calling on the Choir to cancel its performance, through a Change.org petition drafted by Randall Thacker which alleges, among other things, that the President-elect “has demonstrated sexist, racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic behavior that does not align with the principles and teachings of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” While much could be written on the recent trend of Mormon critics disingenuously overstating the significance of such small numbers, I’ll leave that for a separate topic.
Criticisms like these, and the approach employed, is growing increasingly common in modern political discussion, and not just against Mormons. It’s becoming a common tactic across all political camps. On the surface, the seriously misguided nature of the criticism is not obvious, but it is nonetheless problematic, and whether those doing the criticism intend to or not, they represent a high and pernicious form of social bullying and intolerance. In fact, this approach runs afoul of the very values espoused by the critics themselves.
Consider: The central persuasive appeal of Mr. Reyes, Ms. Chamberlin and Mr. Thacker (through his petition) is that the Choir’s willingness to perform at the inauguration will damage the Choir and the Church’s reputation and offend friends and members of the Church. And, since no one can fairly suggest that the comments and actions of President-elect Trump are being directly promoted or defended by the Church or the Choir, the “pressure” being used is an unfair and substantively dishonest appeal to the Church and Choir’s reputation and purported offense its actions will cause or has caused. This kind of manipulation is so common, it’s hard to see the flaw, at first. But, a careful look at what is actually being said, reveals the truly troubling nature of the criticism.
For example, Mr. Reyes concludes in his opinion piece that the Choir’s decision “sends the wrong message to the church’s membership around the world” by performing “for a leader so at odds with LDS teachings.” But, the argument glosses over and skips the most important consideration, which is the actual motivation and intent of the Choir and the Church in accepting the invitation to perform in the first place.
Or, in other words, by omitting to address the Church’s actual motivations in accepting the invitation, and focusing on the supposed “damage” that will be done to the Church, the Choir and the feelings of Church members and their friends, the critics are – either intentionally or unintentionally – engaging in a destructive form of manipulation, essentially amounting to extortion. “Either you stop what you’re doing that hurts our feelings, or there will be consequences.” And this is no innocent implication.
The consequences, while presented as some sort of natural result from the Choir’s decision, really are an ultimatum, from individuals and groups who, like small children often do, are employing the tactic of trying to change events by pre-empting discussion in favor of an emotional outburst and tantrum-esque consequences. The problem is that this form of criticism substitutes an actual discussion or debate over what may or may not be the right thing to do, for a contest of wills over hurt feelings and emotional perceptions.
The error is to assume that if something hurts, its wrong. And, employing this misguided tactic, aggrieved individuals and groups, are increasingly shutting down civil conversations and actions designed to address the root or core of the problems surrounding the hurt feelings, pain and problems that are at issue in the first place.
This approach makes enemies between the hurt and aggrieved, and those who genuinely want to civilly engage in addressing and solving the underlying problems – because, in this framework, unless the feelings of the critics and protesters are considered first, the conversation ends with those whose feelings are hurt claiming increasingly levels of victimization and seeking, without authentic argument, to mobilize sympathy for themselves and animosity and hostility towards those who will not relent. This is bullying.
Keeping it very simple, the argument of the Choir’s critics is that the President-elect (for a variety of alleged reasons) is not a good man, and therefore supporting him Is sending the wrong message and will be damaging to the Choir and the Church. But, the Church and the Choir have openly stated that they are not signing to support Mr. Trump or his politics, nor any of the alleged traits or characteristics attributed to Mr. Trump. Instead, both he Choir and the Church have made clear that the invitation was accepted as a way to “serve our country.” And, as Jim Bennett recently, but quietly pointed out in the Deseret News, “the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has a unique mission and purpose, which transcends the day-to-day mundanity of politics.” This raises the obvious question, what is the actual message that Church and the Choir are sending?
To people of faith generally, and to Latter-day Saints particularly, “the song of the righteous is a prayer unto [God] and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads.” On November 9, 2016, just after the U.S. election, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles issued an official statement, both congratulating President-elect Trump, and commending Secretary Hillary Clinton “and all those who engaged in the election process at a national or local level.” And, the central message of this official statement was an invitation.
We invite Americans everywhere, whatever their political persuasion, to join us in praying for the president-elect, for his new administration and for elected leaders across the nation and the world. Praying for those in public office is a long tradition among Latter-day Saints. The men and women who lead our nations and communities need our prayers as they govern in these difficult and turbulent times.
A month later, Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, in response to an invitation, offered a morning prayer in the United States Senate. This is a long established tradition among the Latter-day Saints, accepting initiations to offer prayer, song, and importations to heaven. And, of course, even if we concede, for the sake of argument, the direct criticisms of President-elect Trump, praying for those we disagree with, or those who are despitefully using or persecuting us, is a defining teaching of the Lord himself.
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?
Can it hurt a person or institution’s reputation to pray for an enemy? Sure. But, this too is central to Christ’s teachings. (I.e. Matthew 10:22, 24:10) And, as pointed out above, focusing first on the emotional response of others skips the most important consideration regarding what might be the right thing to do in the first instance.
Sometimes, doing the right thing – hurts. In April 2016, President Thomas S. Monson implored, “May we maintain the courage to defy the consensus. May we ever choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong.” In September, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles addressed the “serious political divisions” in America that are now “unusually wide and ugly.” Elder Oaks points out that “TV, the internet, and the emboldened anonymity of the blogosphere have replaced whatever remained of the measured discourse of the past and have facilitated the current ugliness.”
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s decision sends a message about rising above the ugliness and divisiveness. It sends a message about engagement in a process and support of institutions – more than individuals and personalities.
While I do not doubt the critics have serious concerns about the election of Mr. Trump to this country’s highest office – it is their approach, not his impending presidency, that puts America most deeply at risk. If we continue to resist intellectual and civil discussions by shaming those who take positions that hurt our feelings, and if we continue to mobilize support as victims and as the aggrieved, rather than as those whose ideas and performances can move us forward, all the “ugliness” feared by the critics will be answered with nothing but more ugliness.
If Donald Trump has made statements and choices that offend, those choices are not the choices made by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir simply because they choose to elevate the principles of liberty at the inauguration. If Donald Trump is sending a message through his words, that does not become the message of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir who will send their most direct message through song.
This brings me back to the misguided and problematic approach taken by Reyes, et al. Too often we allow ourselves, especially when politics and personal values are involved, to believe that the message we hear, is unquestionably the message that was sent. But, that can be a serious error. Only a sender chooses the message he sends, and he indeed should be held accountable for that message. But, one who hears a message, also has an inescapable responsibility to make sure the message they’ve heard, is in fact the message that was sent. That’s the problem with the emotional extortion implicit in the criticism of the Tabernacle Choir. If Donald Trump has hurt your feelings, it is misguided to expand your hurt feelings to all those who choose to respond to him differently than you do. Even more poignant, it is wrong to pressure others into changing their actions in response to your hurt feelings – rather than engaging in direct, intellectual debate and inquiry on the issue or that hurt your feelings in the first place.
In this context, the approach taken forecloses any real discussion – before it gets started. Mr. Reyes, for example, casually references Mr. Trump’s supposed statements and positions on immigrants, refugees, Muslims, Mexicans, and women. In Mr. Reyes world, this parade of horribles, without any discussion, is sufficient. And, if anyone actually attempts to discuss the merits of what is being criticized, and to examine what is at the core of these alleged statements, or heaven forbid, if anyone seeks to explain their support for Mr. Trump despite these statements, he or she is met immediately with scorn and ridicule. This is because, as pointed out above, in this approach, it is not the actual intention of Mr. Trump or those who support him, it’s the degree of “hurt” and “anger” felt by those who heard Mr. Trump’s messages (or the degree of hurt that we are supposed to feel) that rules the day.
But, what if the hurt and anger is misplaced? If we can’t discuss the issue – before demonizing Mr. Trump and those who haven’t openly rejected and forsaken him – then we can never know. In fact, when this approach is employed, the natural consequence is less engagement, more feelings of alienation, and a deepening of the conditions that resulted in the election of Mr. Trump in the first place.
The point I’m trying to make is actually a very simple one. By attacking the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Mr. Reyes is attacking the very idea of bridge building, of the distribution of power, and the nature of America’s republican structure of government. Singing at the inauguration is indeed a message, but it is one that Mr. Reyes evidently cannot hear, and his criticisms tends to keeping others from hearing the message too. He cannot hear because he’s too focused on hurt and anger, and the result, either intentional or unintentional, is to stoke the fears and ugliness that he claims to be against.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s decision, along with the other consistent statements and teachings of Latter-day Saint leaders, offers a much better path forward than the track of Mr. Reyes, Ms. Chamberlin and Mr. Thacker. Mr. Trump was elected. He is going to be inaugurated. That did not happen in a vacuum, nor did it happen overnight. As damaged and as imperfect as our system may be, it remains the best hope on earth for the protection and celebration of life, liberty, prosperity and peace. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are sending a message that our system as a whole is worth saving, worth supporting and worth strengthening, and that by participating – not withdrawing – from that system, we have the best chance to see that system repaired, its paths corrected, and our prayers and hopes for a better, stronger and more principled government in the future.
And frankly, it is become comical, in a dark way, how quickly critics throw out labels like “sexist, racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic.” Human beings are package deals, and all of us, have areas for improvement, not just small ones. And emphasizing a sampling of perceived flaws in any person’s character – seldom justifies an extreme conclusion about the package as a whole. Hasty generalizations for the sake of political or social expedience – does not help any of us in the long run.
Anyway, history is full of examples of people, nations, and governments that take Mr. Reyes’ mistaken approach of shaming, and extorting those whose ideas and choices are disagreeable – based upon the politics of hurt and anger. The ultimate peril heralded by the acceptance of Mr. Reyes’ approach, is not just the bizarre hypocrisy implicit in pretending that Mr. Trump’s statements and actions are wholly different, apart and more concerning that those made regularly by prominent political leaders, including recent past presidents. The worse result is ultimately cultural and then political tyranny; where ideas are punished not debated; where speech is prohibited by force not answered with better speech and where elections are discredited and abandoned rather than acknowledged and protected.
America and her institutions, damaged as they are, still offer the best hope for America’s future, and frankly the future of freedom itself. I know many Americans who voted for Donald Trump for the very reason that the danger, posed by critics like Mr. Reyes, is worse than the label’s and caricatures so often being attacked.
We, as a nation are bigger and stronger than any political leader, and our institutions offer robust and adequate protection for the rights of all men. To be successful however, requires that we turn away from the flawed approach engaged in and promoted by the likes of Messrs. Reyes and Thacker, and redouble our individual, family and community efforts to choose the harder right, instead of the easier wrong – and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is doing just that.
On January 20, 2017, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is going to be signing on inauguration day, and I and my family will be adding our prayers, with theirs, for our country and our leaders – all of them.