Last week, a California Episcopal Church announced that it will not name Donald Trump by name during its prayers for those in civil authority, as prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer, although during the Obama administration its congregation prayed for “Barack, our president.”
Meanwhile, the Washington National Cathedral is in the news because some of its members, as well of one of its former deans, object to the plans for the Cathedral’s Choir of Men, Boys and Girls to sing at the inauguration and for the Cathedral to host an inaugural prayer service. The Cathedral’s new dean has defended these decisions while acknowledging how controversial they are.
Well, one might ask, aren’t churches free to protest Mr. Trump’s inauguration, just as many individual citizens will?
In fact, it is problematic for churches to protest Mr. Trump’s inauguration. And the reason is not the narrow legal reason that they might risk their nonprofit status by taking a partisan political position.
The reason is fundamental to the health of our community: namely, that even in our secular age, churches are among the most important institutions of civil society. Civil society encompasses all those institutions and organizations—from neighborhood associations and nonprofit organizations to universities and churches—that play a role in providing for the commonweal. Civil society occupies the interstice between the individual citizen and the apparatus of the state and so is essential to maintaining a realm of action free from government direction.
Now, that is not to say that churches—or other institutions of civil society—should abstain from any sort of political engagement. The abolition, temperance, and civil rights movements were largely church-based, and those movements were political in aim and in their consequences.
But there’s a difference between working to advance justice or to promote the commonweal and disparaging a particular political leader. When churches or other institutions of civil society disparage (or endorse) a particular political leader, they become merely partisan political actors that are not credible as fair-minded advocates for justice and the good of the community.
The Washington National Cathedral case is a particularly important one because of the Cathedral’s role as the setting for so many occasions of national importance. When the memorial service for Eleanor Roosevelt was held the Cathedral it did not imply an endorsement of the New Deal; likewise, when Ronald Reagan’s state funeral was held at the Cathedral it did not imply an endorsement of his policies. Equally today, the Cathedral’s participation in the inauguration does not imply an endorsement of Mr. Trump’s presidency but instead marks his inauguration as occasion of national importance linked to other similarly important occasions.
Civil society is under threat in so many ways today—from declining participation in civic associations to private foundations playing an outsized role in shaping public policy. It’s important that churches and other institutions of civil society hold their ground as credible nonpartisan advocates for the common good.