At yesterday’s funeral for George H.W. Bush, President Trump and the First Lady stood for the Apostles’ Creed, but did not recite it, nor did they look at the text printed in their service leaflets. This was also their response to most of the other calls for congregational participation in the service. But many of Trump’s critics on social media took special notice of the creed. (See also Michelle Boorstein’s article on this for the Washington Post.) In part, this was because it was the one long text the congregation was asked to recite rather than sing. In part, it was because the camera clearly broadcast that moment to the world.
Besides giving Trump critics another opportunity to denounce him, the online discussion involved a number of interesting points about the creed.
Is the creed a prayer? When some journalists referred to the creed as a common Christian prayer, others who know the creed quickly corrected them. The creed is a proclamation of faith, a statement to the world, the church, and to God, they said. It is not a prayer to God.
In my experience this basically reflects a difference in vocabulary as well as how Catholics and Protestants use the creed. Many Catholics call it a prayer and think of it as a prayer. It is part of the rosary, and one usually speaks of “praying” the rosary and recites the rosary while kneeling. A creed, usually the Nicene, but sometimes the Apostles’ is part of Sunday mass. Most Catholics think of the dominant action in all of mass as prayer.
In Protestant liturgies, on the other hand, the creed is often introduced with words that definite it as a declaration or proclamation of faith. This is how it is used in baptismal liturgies. (Catholics use a slightly different creed in their baptismal rite.) It is because it is used in baptism that it is included in the Episcopalian funeral rite.
Trump identifies as a Presbyterian, and Presbyterians commonly recite it. While this is true, the majority of Trump’s church going experience was at Marble Collegiate Church, a Reformed Church of America congregation. I don’t know the history of Marble Collegiate’s liturgical practice. But the regular recitation of the Apostles’ Creed is not something that I believe would have been emphasized by its long-time pastor, Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking.
Trump is the “evangelical President,” and he doesn’t even know, much less recite the creed. To this many have replied that the recitation of the creed is not a common evangelical practice. Others have said that while many evangelicals love Trump, they recognize that he is not one of their own. To the latter point, I’ll simply say that for some that is true. Some look to him as a “Cyrus” figure. A man from outside God’s people that God has appointed to do his work.
On the former point, it is true that free church evangelical churches, including non denominational churches and many Baptist churches do not use the creed in their worship or education. This is not because of theological objections to the content of the creed, but because of their identity as a non-creedal and/or non-liturgical tradition. I know that many students headed for ministry in evangelical churches encounter the creed for the first time when they are asked to write an essay about it as part of the application process to the divinity school on my campus.
Overall, however, the unfortunate debate is a good moment for liturgy. Liturgies are public. People watch what you do, especially if you are in the front row.
(Additional note added 1:30 CST: In the clip of the funeral accompanying Michelle Boorstein’s article, it appears that Ivanka Trump joined in the recitation of the creed. Since she is an Orthodox Jew, this raises other issues. Participating in televised liturgies when you are a public figure can be a minefield. I also note that perhaps realizing the problematic nature of the Presidential non-recitation, the camera team quickly cut to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry for most of the creed before ending with a wide-angle shot of the clergy.)