Like you, I’m moved and saddened by the luminous, somber sight of the 400 lights lining the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool collectively representing the 400,000 Americans who’ve died so far from Covid-19.
President-elect Joe Biden, Jill Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her spouse, Doug Emhoff, stood by themselves in front of that memorial, our nation’s overdue first official memorial to Covid-19 victims, on Tuesday night and poignantly addressed the country, saying, “It’s important to [heal] as a nation. That’s why we’re here today.” It was a lovely, loving way to ensure the Inauguration festivities-to-come did not disrespect the suffering or eclipse our focus on the urgent challenges ahead.
But one aspect of that Tuesday event was not at all lovely to me: the decision to single out Cardinal Wilton Gregory to join this elite group of four, to deliver an invocation to a nation tuned in to witness a civic event. Gregory’s liturgical presence and his Christian invocation turned it from a civil ceremony into a religious service.
The archbishop of Washington, D.C., intoned that the pandemic has left Americans with “a sobering awareness that we are all united in the sorrow that we recognize today.” But imposing Christian prayer and rituals into a civil function does not unify, it divides our nation along religious lines.
Gregory prayed, “Let us with one heart commend those who have died from this virus and all of their loved ones to the Providential care of the One who is the ultimate source of peace, unity and concord.”
This is meaningless blither-blather. I am reminded of George Eliot’s devastating essay, in which she quips, “The clergy are, practically, the most irresponsible of all talkers.”
But aside from such religious expressions, there are many reasons why it was offensive to invite a Roman Catholic prelate to offer an invocation about Covid-19 at a state event.
First, obviously, it certainly gives the appearance of endorsement of religion, in this case, Catholicism.
Worse, it casts a Christian veneer over the new administration at a time our nation has just witnessed the threat that extremism allied with Christian Nationalism presents to our nation’s very security. Haven’t we seen demonstrated before our eyes the harm when our government is faith-based instead of fact-based? Haven’t we endured enough religious posturing from the White House, heard enough from a president repeatedly saying “We’re a nation of believers,” and watched enough pandering? Haven’t we suffered through enough claims that a president can be “anointed by God”? It’s time to stop mixing religious rituals with state.
But to invite a member of the Catholic hierarchy to pray to all citizens about the coronavirus was particularly careless. The Catholic Church waltzed away with at least $1.4 billion and possibly more than $3 billion in taxpayer coronavirus aid last year, after lobbying that federal rules be broken to enrich it. As the Associated Press revealed, countless dioceses receiving tax funds have been accused of covering up priestly sex crimes against children, have paid out huge settlements or sought bankruptcy protection from civil suits. Gregory was president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops when it adopted a (rather useless) zero-tolerance policy, instead of asking the pope to defrock offenders. “He’s better than most, but by no means a saint,” David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said at the time.
And it is more than ironic to ask a Catholic official to deliver a sermon on the coronavirus after so many Catholic individuals, dioceses and their schools have sued government officials over social distancing and closure rules enacted to stem the tide of the virus. Churches and believers resisting over health mandates have helped spread the virus. A majority of Catholics on the Supreme Court alarmingly sided with a lawsuit taken by Catholics, among others, to bar state officials from issuing such mandates.
Finally, offering prayer in a pandemic is an insult to intelligence. Believers are praying to a supposedly omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent deity who has let 2 million people die, with more deaths to come. As my mother Anne Gaylor, FFRF’s principal founder, famously declared, “Nothing fails like prayer.”
As for the rest of the Tuesday event, it was with mixed feelings that I watched and heard the engaging nurse, Lori Key, beautifully perform that detestable hymn, “Amazing Grace.” It was written by a “reformed” slave trader, John Newton, and I would concur with him that he was certainly “a wretch” — and far worse. But Ms. Key is not a “wretch.” She is a lovely, joyful young woman, an essential worker who not only saves lives but enriches patients and colleagues with her music: “When I’m at work, I sing. It gives me strength during difficult times and I believe it helps heal.” It pained me to hear her debase herself and the rest of humanity. Neither she nor any other human being is born a “wretch” with “original sin.”
Interestingly, Yolanda Adams, the other invited vocalist at the Tuesday event, performed the pop song “Hallelujah,” which its composer, Leonard Cohen, called a “secular Hallelujah.” It is really a love song couched in biblical allusion, but if you’re not listening closely, it appears to be a hymn, and perhaps that’s why it was chosen. Cohen said, “I wanted to push the Hallelujah deep into the secular world, into the ordinary world. The Hallelujah, the David’s Hallelujah, was still a religious song. So I wanted to indicate that Hallelujah can come out of things that have nothing to do with religion.” (Read the words!)
On the other hand, country singer Garth Brooks being called upon by the new administration to sing “Amazing Grace” as a part of the official Inaugural was even more problematic. It was appropriate to ask Lady Gaga to sing the national anthem and for Jennifer Lopez to sing “This Land is Your Land” (which ought to be our national anthem). But to schedule and include “Amazing Grace,” an overtly doctrinaire, sectarian hymn (read the words!), as if it were a patriotic, unifying emblem of our country, was wrong. We are not a “Christian nation” by law or indeed by population, with 35 percent of us non-Christian. It seems, given Brooks’ conservative leanings, that this invitation may have even been calculated to propitiate the Christian Nationalist base. More likely, Biden, as a devoutly religious man, cannot escape his thoughtless assumption that religion must be involved to solemnize an occasion — or express grief.
P.S. The Inaugural concert on the Mall Wednesday night, by contrast, was a real upper, led off by the gifted (and nonreligious) John Legend in front of a beautiful grand piano with the Lincoln Memorial as a dramatic backdrop, performing “Birds Flying High” (popularized by another nonbeliever, Nina Simone, words and music by Lil Wayne and Juelz Santana):
It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life for me
And I’m feeling good
Now that could become another secular hymn.