Bad reaction, in my opinion.
I am an evangelical Christian and a liberal Democrat (yes, we exist). I am also a “recorded minister,” as we call them, in the Religious Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers. I spent some years as a professor of religious studies and the history of Christianity.
From those vantage points, I wish to defend the president and his spouse. (Those are words I thought I’d never write.)
The Apostles' Creed is not just a prayer one can or should recite out of courtesy for the sake of show, good manners or good taste.
The Creed — or any Christian creed — is a statement of belief and a public commitment to very specific, carefully enumerated theological doctrines. It is not a bland, generic greeting-card prayer addressing an impersonal creator, a “force,” “the universe” or “the spirit of goodness” that could conceivably be uttered by anybody of any religious perspective or none at all.
I admit entirely that the Trumps' abstention could well have been motivated by cluelessness, inattention, bad taste, bad manners, unfamiliarity, distraction or any number of other things. But the bottom line is that they abstained from reciting aloud, in public, a personal commitment to the truth of very specific, classic, ancient Christian doctrines.
The president participated in a public ceremony in his capacity as head of state, not as a Presbyterian (which is how he has identified himself). As such, he has no obligation to declare those theological truths, or any others, aloud in public. In fact, I’d suggest, he has an obligation not to do so if he disagrees with any of them, or all of them, or doesn’t especially care, or isn’t sure, or doesn’t understand — or just thinks the president should be theologically neutral in public.
Sincere abstention is more meaningful than insincere participation.
Americans should not judge this president (or any president) for the theological doctrines he is willing or unwilling to profess in a public liturgy — provided he does not publicly profess doctrines that put him in conflict with his constitutional obligations or the legal rights of other Americans.
The Constitution makes it clear that public officials are not to be subject to religious tests. While that applies legally only to the government imposing such tests, I suggest the public and the Fourth Estate should hew to the same standard.
Had a Jewish or Hindu president done the same thing at the Bush service, would the public have criticized him or her the same way? I object to public officials being judged on what they say or don’t say at religious services — in particular statements of faith or prayers.
Surely, criticize him for prejudice against certain religions. Criticize him for packing his Cabinet with only a narrow demographic and religious range of officers, or for coddling religious extremists, or for denigrating religions of which he is not a member. But not for keeping silent during recitation of a creed.
Further, in Christian history there is a minority streak of objection to the public profession of creeds, even when one agrees wholly with their contents. My own religious tradition, the Quakers, is but one example. Quakers, in fact, were excluded from universities in Britain until the early 19th century because of their refusal to submit to any creedal test, even though they would have agreed entirely with the contents of the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds (though not the Thirty-Nine Articles, the standard definition of Anglican doctrine). Baptists also had a long tradition of refusing creeds. It’s complicated, but in a nutshell they wanted worship to be less scripted, or they wanted more doctrinal freedom.
The Stone-Campbell tradition (Disciples of Christ, Churches of Christ, etc.) had a motto: “No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible.” They refused, and mostly still refuse, to recite creeds. I agree with nearly every word in those creeds but would never recite them in public because I am a Quaker, and we have theological and ethical reasons for not doing so. Even at the funeral of a president.
There are mountains of offenses for which the current president deserves resounding criticism. On this point, however, the criticism is religiously tone deaf and blurs the boundaries between church and state. Even if the Trumps abstained from reading the Apostles' Creed because they are moronic or rude rather than religiously principled, I believe the public and press need to leave them to their foolishness, bad manners or their principle on this point.
Patrick J. Nugent is a nonprofit arts executive and church historian from Kent Island, Md. He taught religion courses at Earlham College and was the principal of Friends Theological College in Kaimosi, Kenya.