Why I Respectfully Disagree With The Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s Decision To Perform At Donald Trump’s Inauguration

12/30/2016 10:05 am ET Updated Dec 30, 2016
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings at the first session of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' 185th Annual G
George Frey / Reuters
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings at the first session of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' 185th Annual General Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah April 4, 2015.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has accepted an invitation to sing at President-elect Trump’s inauguration, immediately generating a degree of controversy and prompting the circulation of an online petition opposing the choir’s upcoming performance which (as of the time of writing) has more than 20,000 signatures.

The petition argues that Donald Trump “DOES NOT reflect the values of Mormonism and does not represent its diverse 15+ million members worldwide.” It further states that the performance will send a signal, whether intended or not, “that the LDS Church and its diverse 15+ million members worldwide support an incoming president’s agenda, values and behaviors.” As someone who is proud of my Mormon heritage and who has publicly spoken out against Mr. Trump’s agenda, values, and behaviors, this question is an important one to me.

A strong defense of the choir’s decision to accept the invitation to sing at Trump’s inauguration comes from Daniel Peterson who argues that to decline the invitation would be an explicitly political action which would be inappropriate for a politically-neutral religious institution to engage in.

Perhaps the strongest defense I have seen comes from the LDS Church itself: “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.” In my view, this is a defensible and honorable motivation. Freedom, civility, and democratic norms are all things that deserve to be supported and celebrated.

That being said, I also think there are important and defensible arguments against the choir’s decision.

Regardless of the specific motivations of the choir to accept the invitation, it will almost certainly be interpreted by most viewers (both at home and abroad) as an endorsement of the president-elect and his values and priorities. The LDS Church has emphasized on several occasions that the choir is an official representative of the church. Given that role, it is notable that a singer recently resigned from the choir given that she could not, in good conscience, be part of an organization that chose to publicly associate with Mr. Trump and his values and priorities. Also, a high-ranking elder of the LDS Church once explained that dealing with something “in a public situation” constitutes an implied approval.

Democrats and Republicans alike have acknowledged that Mr. Trump’s behavior during the campaign and since his election has been characterized by explicit appeals to racial prejudice, religious prejudice, and misogyny. He has unapologetically bragged about multiple incidents of sexual assault. He has called for a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States (something that should especially be unacceptable to Mormons who themselves were on the receiving end of such policies not too long ago). His rhetoric is strongly signaling that he would like to weaken traditional American democratic norms, freedoms, and institutions.

Even though the motivation of the choir to perform at Mr. Trump’s inauguration is in my view an honorable one, the result will unavoidably be a strengthened association between the LDS Church and Mr. Trump’s shameful and disgraceful behaviors, values, and anti-democratic priorities in the eyes of both the United States and the world community.

In sum, there are two important and defensible moral imperatives at play: 1) publicly standing for political neutrality and the celebration of democratic institutions, and 2) publicly standing against racism, misogyny, sexual assault, and authoritarian gestures.

Recognizing that sometimes tough choices need to be made between two good options, on this particular question I would confidently choose the latter. This is because in my framework of moral reasoning, I tend to give preference to groups and priorities that are on the disadvantaged end of a power relationship. In this case, standing with racial/ethnic minorities, Muslims, victims sexual assault and harassment, and oppressed citizens of authoritarian regimes around the world is of a higher moral imperative than publicly celebrating a peaceful transition of power, especially when that transition is to an individual who is actively threatening to do harm to those disadvantaged groups.

It is also worth noting again that the stated motivation of the choir is to show support for democratic norms and institutions such as “freedom… and the peaceful transition of power.” Given that honorable motivation, one could argue that a decision to decline the invitation from someone who has publicly called for weakening American democratic norms of freedom and the peaceful transition of power would be a more effective way to demonstrate that support than to appear to be publicly endorsing an individual who is not supportive of those priorities.

This is why I decided to sign the petition and I encourage you to consider doing so as well.

Your mileage may differ. Of course, I do not think you are wrong if you disagree.

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