Well, lo and behold the man and I have something in common after all.
Politics indeed makes for strange bedfellows. Move over, Donald. And stop hogging the blanket.
To my utter surprise, I found myself last week having a rare moment of commiseration with the president. It had to do with all of the online reactions to his somewhat stony-faced expressions during the funeral of President George H.W. Bush. Tweeters and commentators alike had a field day with how he and the first lady failed to recite the Apostles’ Creed or sing any of the hymns during the service.
That the first couple chose not to recite prayers was in stark contrast to the presence of the former presidents and first ladies who sat adjacent to them in the same pew. Each of those “formers,” as they’re now popularly called, recited, sang, and otherwise chanted along with the other celebrants in attendance at the National Cathedral. It was admittedly a stark comparison between the current and formers.
Social media lighted up afterwards with snark comments about Mr. Trump’s body language and facial frowns during the funeral.
Although I’m used to regularly laughing and engaging in more than a bit of snark at the expense of this man’s many social gaffes, this time the criticism hit a slight nerve: I saw a little of myself in both his and the first lady’s demeanor. I usually sit in silence at religious services too.
Going to funerals is sometimes awkward, and for some people attending religious services can be awkward too. While I thankfully doubt I’ve ever displayed quite the same kind of pose or expression that Mr. Trump is showing in the above photo, I suspect family members of mine at various points have remarked amongst themselves about my own conspicuous appearance of detachment at religious services.
I know I generally sit and stare ahead with a fixed expression as I watch and listen to clergy. I suspect I give off a vague impression that I’m counting the minutes before I’m finally freed from the requirement of being there. A fellow groomsman once remarked after a friend’s wedding in which we were both participants, that I appeared to be more like a pre-nup drafter for the groom rather than the best man I actually was. Fortunately that couple remains blissfully married.
In college I was once tasked to offer grace at an end-of-term banquet for student government representatives and invited deans. I went to the library ahead of time and found a two-sentence, non-denominational prayer in an old etiquette guide for municipal government events. I remember starting and finishing the reading while some people were still “sh-shhing” everyone to quiet down. So I was asked to repeat it again because no one actually heard me. When I finished reciting it for the second time, I recall a unanimous approval to levy an additional 0.05% property tax form the purpose of improving city playgrounds.
What I lacked in ecumenical skills, I more than made up for in public service.
When it comes down to it, I’m just not comfortable with outward expressions of faith, even in a house of worship. Am I okay with you openly praying or chanting in church or temple? Absolutely. I, however, prefer to keep matters of faith and belief a little closer to the vest.
I do think about the scripture passages that are read at services, and I earnestly listen to sermons from clergy, which I often find to be stirring. When I’m in a synagogue, I follow along with the Hebrew in the prayer books and impress myself that it still comes back to me.
Like many of my peers in the years preceding our bar and bat mitzvahs during the early 1970’s, I learned to read and speak Hebrew while for the most part not understanding anything of what I was actually reciting. It was a rote, assembly line-like teaching and learning method that was one-way by choice, and it was perfect for my immediate Hebrew school posse of disinterested contemporaries. We learned our Torah portions for two or three years, and once executed at our own bar mitzvahs, we unceremoniously and unofficially fulfilled the requirements each had each made to our parents. Done. Fini. Sono qui fuori.
From then on, I took a detached, almost academic view of organized religion. It all fascinates me from afar (particularly Catholicism) but not enough to partake on my own accord. When called upon as an adult to say an aliyah at Jewish mitzvahs, I’ve made sure to practice beforehand to not embarrass myself.
Two of my three other siblings, however, took different paths and are much more aligned with their faith. Each are active in their respective temples, and religion plays a very important part in their lives. I receive greeting cards from them at Rosh Hashanah and Chanukah, and naturally I’ve been invited to all the mitzvahs for my nieces and nephews.
But none of my experiences or feelings about religion changes how I act or feel once I enter a house of worship — any house of worship. I do believe in God, or at least a higher power of some kind, and I am always respectful and interested in the services taking place in one. Were a network TV camera to be trained on my face, as it did to those at the Bush funeral, it might lead some to conclude that I am disinterested and disdainful of my surroundings. And that would be wrong.
So I give Mr. Trump a bit of a pass on his church demeanor last week. Just as I wouldn’t want others to come to wrong conclusions about me, I don’t think that we should necessarily jump to conclusions about him or the first lady either.
I am not blind to the fact that he cozied up to the evangelical Christian right in this country to get elected. Like many, I do find it laughable that a twice-divorced, Manhattan businessman who’s had numerous liaisons with models, strippers, and porn stars, actually convinced that particular cross-section of the religious electorate that he was “one of them.” Please.
But really none of that really matters to me as it relates to his mannerisms and private thoughts at the Bush funeral, or any religious ceremony he attends for that matter. I’m giving him the same benefit of the doubt that I wish to receive: don’t judge a book by its cover.
Of course, yet another old expression alludes to the habitual nature of someone looking, swimming, and quacking like a duck. But let’s not go there for right now. After all, we still have two years left to say the secret word and have Groucho pay us our $100 at the next election.
Until next time…