Washington National Cathedral’s Rebuke of Trump’s Language

The bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington along with the dean of Washington National Cathedral, and the cathedral’s canon theologian have won widespread media attention for the cathedral with their statement “Have We No Decency? A Response to President Trump.”

I was reminded of the clergy’s statement while looking at images of houses of worship in Baltimore for an earlier post responding to this moment. The Russian-born sculptor George Aarons (1896-1980) carved a set of limestone reliefs for the front of the 1951 synagogue of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. One shows a prophet rebuking a king.

It vividly expresses the power of the prophetic confrontation. It also suggests repentance by the ruler. Or perhaps the prophet’s upturned face and the ruler’s downturned face suggest the orientation of one toward God and the other toward the self.

The cathedral’s statement is carefulMy crafted, however, not to primarily be an appeal to the president, but to the American people. They call on us to stop accepting “a level of insult and abuse in political discourse that violates each person’s sacred identity as a child of God.” They take their “Have we no decency?” from U.S. Army attorney Joseph Welch’s question to Senator Joseph McCarthy on June 9, 1954 in a televised hearing on Communist infiltration, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness . . . You have done enough, Have you no sense of decency?”

The clergy, however, recast the question into the first-person and the plural. “In retrospect, it’s clear that Welch’s question was directed less toward McCarthy and more to the nation as a whole. Had Americans had enough? Where was our sense of decency?”

In effect, they call on Americans to be both figures in Aaron’s relief, the pentient and the one who is willing to confront power. In a democracy all share in the office of king and prophet.

The cathedral leader’s statement closes remembering the prayer service at the cathedral that the president attended the day after his inauguration in 2017.

We prayed for the President and his young Administration to have “wisdom and grace in the exercise of their duties that they may serve all people of this nation, and promote the dignity and freedom of every person.”
That remains our prayer today for us all.

Budde, Hollerith, and Douglas, “Have We No Decency,” Washington National Cathedral, July 30, 2019, https://cathedral.org/have-we-no-decency-a-response-to-president-trump.html

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