Today the Supreme Court will hear arguments in The American Legion v. American Humanist Association concerning the forty-foot tall the Peace Cross at a traffic junction in Bladensburg, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C.
The cross is a memorial to American solders who died in World War I. It was completed in 1925 and is now maintained with government funds. The Fourth Circuit of Appeals has ruled that this makes it unconstitutional because it “excessively entangles the government in religion.” While the Bladensburg cross was reportedly directly inspired by a wooden cross that marked the grave of an American solider in France, the name “Peace Cross” is shared with another, older, Washington-area monument.
On October 23, 1898, President William McKinley attended the dedication of a Peace Cross marking the end of the Spanish-American War. It was erected by Bishop Henry Yates Satterlee on the newly purchased grounds of Washington National Cathedral. It was the first monument on that site.
The inscription on the cathedral Peace Cross states that its purpose was “to mark the founding of the Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul.” It also bears a petition from the litany in the Book of Common Prayer, “That it may please Thee to give to all Nations Unity Peace and Concord, We beseech Thee to hear us Good Lord.”
While the cross does not explicitly reference the Spanish-American War except to say it was erected in “the historic year 1898,” its link to the end of the war makes it one of America’s first cross-shaped war memorials. It probably influenced the erection and naming of the Bladensburg cross seven miles to the east.
[Washington National Cathedral is owned and maintained by the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation, and thus is not involved in the constitutional questions before the Supreme Court.]
In the age of television, the world has watched the funerals of nine U.S. presidents. These funerals had many stages, including, rites in the city of death, lying in state in Capitol Rotunda, a church service in Washington, and rites at the place of burial. For George H.W. Bush and his two immediate predecessors in death, the key stage was the funeral at Washington National Cathedral. At two hours and nine minutes, Bush’s service was a full forty minutes longer than either of theirs, and four times longer than the 1969 service at the cathedral for President Eisenhower. (Details below)
One reason for the greater length of the cathedral funerals for Reagan, Ford, and Bush is that they have included eulogies. Former president Dwight Eisenhower was eulogized by President Richard Nixon in the Capitol Rotunda as was former Herbert Hoover by president Lyndon Johnson. There were no eulogies or even homilies the church services for Hoover and Eisenhower.
During ceremonies in the Rotunda, many attendees must stand. They are subject to fatigue. At the ceremony for Gerald Ford in December 2006, Michigan congressman William Broomfield collapsed. Delivering the eulogies in a church presents a more comfortable situation, though with the consequence of more intimately mixing the civic and the religious.
Nixon’s funeral included five addresses. There were four tributes by friends, family, or national leaders and one homily by a clergyman. The same pattern has been followed in subsequent services. Bush’s funeral was longer than Reagan’s and Ford’s not because of a greater number of addresses, but because of their greater average length and the inclusion of longer scripture readings, additional prayers, and music.
The three recent funerals have included more music including offerings by military and ecclesiastical groups and, in the case of Reagan and Ford, by famous musicians. They have also been conducted not only in an Episcopal cathedral, but by Episcopal clergy and according to Episcopal liturgies. While this is no surprise for Episcopalians Ford and Bush, Reagan was at the time of his death a Presbyterian. Eisenhower was also a Presbyterian, and when he was buried from the cathedral his service was led primarily by a Presbyterian minister according to the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship.
Today the Episcopal Church calls for more participation by the congregation in funeral than it did in former times. At Hoover’s Episcopal funeral in 1964, the congregation was asked to stand, sit, kneel, recite the Lord’s Prayer, and respond to other prayers with, “Amen.” At Bush’s funeral the congregation was not asked to kneel but they were was invited to sing two hymns, recite acclamations after scripture readings, participate in a litany, and recite the Apostles’ Creed as well as respond to the prayers with an “Amen.” Much of this stems from the new Book of Common Prayer adopted in 1979 as part of the liturgical reform movement that also reshaped Roman Catholic worship and that of many other denominations. One effect of these changes has been to lengthen the service.
It is tempting to hypothesize that the war-time funerals of Roosevelt, Truman, and Johnson were simpler out of deference to the many Americans who were loosing loved ones in the service of their country. It is probably truer to say that American funeral custom has changed. While singer Aretha Franklin’s day-long funeral in August was exceptional, it is indicative of a trend among some Americans.
I remember that when I was a child, my father took pride in saying that the Book of Common Prayer provided the same funeral for “king and commoner.” Comparing the Bush funeral to those in my local parish church, that is still true. It is simply that kings, or in this case presidents, have friends who are senators, prime ministers, and award-winning musicians.
Made for Television
While the funerals of Kennedy, Eisenhower, and Johnson were all well televised according to the capacity of their day, Nixon’s 1994 California funeral was the first to be carefully crafted for television in the era of the 24/7 news cycle. Reagan’s funeral a decade later did the same, but on a much larger scale. It set a new standard.
Some traditional aspects of Reagan’s funeral, such as the horse-drawn procession, were not used by Ford and Bush. Other aspects such as the more elaborate church service were. From ancient times until the age of television, slow processions were a major way the public participated in funerals. They remained so through the mid-twentieth century for the funerals of Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. But as media have involved, so has the means of public participation. Today televised indoor services receive the most attention.
Length of Presidential Funerals in Churches in Washington, D.C.
Six of the nine televised presidential funerals have involved a service at a D.C. church with the body present. The length of the church funeral given below is from the moment the clergy receive the body outside the church to when the body exits the church. It excludes outdoor military honors.
(The timings are based on videos of the services provided at the links below. An exception is Eisenhower’s. I have not yet located a recording of the complete service, so the time is based on information provided by the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.)
1963, November 25, John F. Kennedy, St. Matthew’s Cathedral, pontifical low requiem mass, eulogy by the Most Reverend Philip M. Hannan, 1 hour 5 minutes.
1969, March 31, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Washington National Cathedral, funeral service, 30 minutes.
1973, January 25, Lyndon B. Johnson, National City Christian Church, funeral service including addresses by W. Marvin Watson and the Reverend George Davis, 54 minutes.
2004, June 11, Ronald W. Reagan, Washington National Cathedral, Burial of the Dead, Rite I including addresses by George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, Margaret Thatcher, Brian Mulroney, and the Reverend John C. Danforth, 1 hour, 30 minutes.
2007, January 2, Gerald R. Ford, Washington National Cathedral, Burial of the Dead, Rite I including addresses by George H.W. Bush, Henry A. Kissinger, Thomas J. Brokaw, George W. Bush, and the Reverend Dr. Robert Certain, 1 hour 29 minutes
2018, December 5, George H.W. Bush, Washington National Cathedral, Burial of the Dead, Rite II including addresses by Jon Meacham, Brian Mulroney, Alan K. Simpson, George W. Bush, and the Reverend Dr. Russell Levenson, Jr., 2 hours, 9 minutes.F
Length of Funerals Elsewhere
The funerals of Hoover, Truman, and Nixon each included a televised religious service, but not from a Washington church.
1964, 21 October, Herbert C. Hoover, St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, New York, New York, Burial of the Dead, President Johnson attended the service which occurred before Hoover was taken to Washington to lie in state. Hoover lay in repose before and after the service, so unlike the others the length of the service does not include a procession into and out of the church, 15 minutes.
1972, 28 December, Harry S Truman, Presidential Library and Museum, Independence, Missouri, indoor funeral service, 39 minutes. This was a private family service. President Nixon had flown to Independence to pay his respects to Mrs. Truman earlier and did not attend the service nor the official memorial service at Washington National Cathedral on January 5 which was attended by other government officials and foreign dignitaries. I do not believe that service was televised. According to the New York Times it included an address by the Very Reverend Francis B. Sayre, Jr., and lasted 40 minutes.
1994, April 27, Richard M. Nixon, Presidential Library and Museum, Yorba Linda, California, funeral service including addresses by Henry Kissinger, Robert Dole, Pete Wilson, Bill Clinton, and Billy Graham. While the burial service followed immediately at a slightly different location on the same site, the portion corresponding to the church services above was 1 hour 8 minutes.
When President Donald Trump stood silently during the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed last week, perhaps he was thinking, “I should be home by now.” It would have been a reasonable thought.
The funeral of George H.W. Bush was the longest in the history of televised presidential funerals. It was forty minutes longer than either Ronald Reagan’s or Gerald Ford’s and four times as long as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s.
I’m referring here to the portion of the multi-day funeral conducted inside Washington National Cathedral. From the time his body was received by the bishops at the door of the cathedral until it was borne out through the same doors, two hours and nine minutes elapsed. (I’ll share details on the length of televised presidential funerals in an upcoming post.)
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry invited the congregation to say the creed one hour and forty-six minutes into the service. The longest previous funeral was Reagan’s at an hour and a half. Bush’s funeral was not longer because of any big difference. It had the same number of tributes as Reagan’s and a similar array of music. But a number of little things combined to make it longer. Among other things, two opening collects were used, not one, the scripture readings were longer, the average length of the addresses was longer, and of course the creed was recited. (Eisenhower’s funeral also included the creed.)
Bush’s leisurely funeral by no means explains the president’s general lack of a receptive expression during the service. Often people sit with friends at funerals. If they do not, they try to make friends with those they are near, especially if they are politicians. As has been widely noted neither the president nor some of his companions in the first row seemed interested in doing this. No doubt it was a long time to sit following someone else’s schedule and feeling alone.
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.)