‘Violent,’ ‘dehumanizing,’ ‘dangerous’: National Cathedral’s sharp criticism of Trump resonates across America

By Egan Millard
Posted Jul 31, 2019

The Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., is the seat of the presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church. Photo: Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service] It’s not often that an official statement from the Washington National Cathedral – the most famous icon of The Episcopal Church and site of many state funerals and inaugural prayer services – contains words like “savage,” “dangerous,” “violent” and “dehumanizing.”

But it’s also not often that a president of the United States calls an American city “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess … a dangerous and filthy place” and targets congressional representatives of color with racist insults.

In light of the escalation of President Donald Trump’s racially focused attacks, the clergy of the National Cathedral released a statement on July 30 that denounced Trump’s “violent, dehumanizing words.” The statement, which has spread rapidly around social media and news outlets, contains some of the strongest, most direct language used so far by American religious leaders in reference to Trump:

“As faith leaders who serve at Washington National Cathedral – the sacred space where America gathers at moments of national significance – we feel compelled to ask: After two years of President Trump’s words and actions, when will Americans have enough?”

The statement, titled “Have We No Decency? A Response to President Trump,” is ultimately directed more at the American people than Trump himself, and draws a parallel between the present moment and Joseph Welch’s famous confrontation of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1954.

“As Americans, we have had such moments before, and as a people we have acted. Events of the last week call to mind a similarly dark period in our history,” the statement reads. “McCarthy had free rein to say and do whatever he wished. With unbridled speech, he stoked the fears of an anxious nation with lies; destroyed the careers of countless Americans; and bullied into submissive silence anyone who dared criticize him.”

It took Welch’s bold questioning on national TV – “Have you no sense of decency?” – to “effectively [end] McCarthy’s notorious hold on the nation,” and Trump’s words and actions demand a similar response from the American people, the statement says.

“When does silence become complicity?” it asks. “What will it take for us all to say, with one voice, that we have had enough? The question is less about the president’s sense of decency [than] of ours.”

The statement is signed by the Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, bishop of the Diocese of Washington, the Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, dean of the cathedral, and the Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglas, the cathedral’s canon theologian.

Some of the statement’s firmest language focuses on racism and the erosion of common decency and moral values:

“We have come to accept a level of insult and abuse in political discourse that violates each person’s sacred identity as a child of God. We have come to accept as normal a steady stream of language and accusations coming from the highest office in the land that plays to racist elements in society.”

And although Budde, Hollerith and Douglas have individually criticized various policies of the Trump administration before, this statement’s focus on Trump’s character, its frank description of racism and its warning of violent consequences make it unique:

“Make no mistake about it, words matter. And Mr. Trump’s words are dangerous. These words are more than a ‘dog whistle.’ When such violent dehumanizing words come from the President of the United States, they are a clarion call, and give cover, to white supremacists who consider people of color a sub-human ‘infestation’ in America. They serve as a call to action from those people to keep America great by ridding it of such infestation. Violent words lead to violent actions.”

The statement concludes with an excerpt from Trump’s inaugural prayer service at the cathedral on Jan. 21, 2017, during which the clergy “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,” the statement ends.

The statement was quickly picked up by national and international news outlets including The Washington Post, CNN, The Guardian and Bloomberg, and has been shared thousands of times on social media by influential figures such as Chris Matthews, Mia Farrow, former CIA Director John Brennan, director Ava DuVernay and multiple current and former members of Congress.

“Never have I been more proud to call the Washington National Cathedral my home,” former National Security Adviser Susan Rice tweeted along with a link to the statement.

“This is a very big deal. Extraordinary step by National Cathedral,” said former Sen. Claire McCaskill.

Budde told ENS she is “surprised and gratified by the response.”

“We had never planned to issue a statement in response to a presidential tweet before,” Budde said, “but as we said in the statement, this one crossed a threshold and it struck a particular nerve, given both the racial overtones and the attack by association of an entire city.”

It was Budde’s idea to compare the current political situation with the McCarthy era.

McCarthy “could say and do whatever he wanted, and it didn’t seem to have any consequence at all,” she explained. “The fear of communism seemed to give license to all kinds of political behavior that was simply outrageous, and in retrospect, we wonder: ‘My God, how could it have gone on as long as it did?’ I did some research on that iconic moment. … It was a breaking point, and a part of me has been longing for that.”

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Budde said the statement had nothing to do with impeachment or any particular political outcome. Instead, she said, she was trying to prevent the normalization of white supremacist views and the violence that they can cause by appealing to a sense of common decency.

“I don’t do that lightly, and I try not to do that in a partisan way. But we also have the hope that there was a common sense of ‘we are just tired of this, we’ve had enough, and we do have a sense of decency and this violates it and we want it to stop.’ That was our abiding hope, and we have heard that,” she said.

When asked how she would respond to Episcopalians who, regardless of their political beliefs, think the church should simply stay out of politics, Budde said she understands but believes engaging in public life is part of what being a Christian entails.

“I believe in the separation of church and state and I abide by it,” Budde said. “But the separation of church and state was never intended to keep people with religious moral views out of the political arena. It was to protect the political arena from undue religious influence that had state sponsorship. … It’s an understandable perspective, but I think ultimately it breaks down when you [consider that] the greatest moments of our history are when people of faith are engaged in the public arena, and the times when we have the greatest cause for shame are when people of faith do nothing.”

– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at emillard@episcopalchurch.org.