State funerals are what they are — the high-church rites of civil religion.
Obviously, they are political events that may include elements of partisan drama. Obviously, they are civic events featuring warm, mostly secular, salutes to national leaders. At the same time, they are funerals in which families confront the death of a loved one, a process that is often complex and emotional.
But may I add one more statement to this list of facts? The vast majority of state funerals are also worship services and this is especially true when dealing with political leaders who were faithful members of a parish and their lives were framed in a specific religious tradition.
With all of these realities in mind, let me suggest a quick, digital test that readers can use when evaluating the mainstream press coverage of the long, beautiful Washington Cathedral rites for former President George H.W. Bush.
First, search the story for this name — “Russell Levenson.”
Then search the story for this name — “Donald Trump.” After all, everything in Beltway land, these days, is ultimately about the Tweeter In Chief.
Now, compare and contrast what you find.
Who is Levenson? He is the rector of the large Houston parish attended by George and Barbara Bush and, thus, their pastor for more than a decade. Since this funeral was a rite of Christian worship, Levenson delivered the sermon at the end. Yes, this was the rare event where a priest spoke AFTER an address by the president, in this case a former president.
The way I see it, it’s hard to cover a worship service while ignoring the sermon and, come to think of it, the actual contents of the funeral rite itself.
So let’s look at some of the content in two crucial news sources in elite American media — The New York Times and, naturally, The Washington Post.
The main story at Times included material addressing secular and religious content in this particular state funeral. Sure, I would have liked a stronger emphasis on the faith content, but I know I am not part of this newspaper’s target audience, it’s choir. I thought this was a rather restrained, solid story.
Yes, there was a reference to Levenson’s sermon — at the very end.
After the funeral, Mr. Bush was flown to Houston, where a service will be held on Thursday at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church. …
“My hunch is heaven, as perfect as it must be, just got a bit kinder and gentler,” the Rev. Dr. Russell J. Levenson Jr., rector of St. Martin’s, said on Wednesday in his homily. Turning to the coffin, he said: “Mr. President, mission complete. Well done, good and faithful servant. Welcome to your eternal home, where ceiling and visibility are unlimited and life goes on forever.”
At the Post, readers were hit with a tsunami of information — as you would expect from the dominant news source inside the DC Beltway. It goes without saying that Trump received just as much attention as Bush 41 and, well, way more coverage than Levenson, God, Jesus or anyone else in that arena of life. There was politics, politics, more politics and, finally, a big shot of brutal religious commentary. Yes, I will come back to that religion-angle story.
First, Levenson made a very brief appearance in the main story — “At George H.W. Bush’s funeral, a magisterial presidency meets one diminished by division” — and, well, even that one sermon quote can be read as commentary about You Know Who. As in:
The Rev. Russell Jones Levenson Jr., who had been Bush’s pastor at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, acknowledged that some were describing Bush’s death as the “end of an era.”
In his homily, Levenson argued against that formulation. “Perhaps it’s an invitation to fill the hole that has been left behind,” he suggested.
But look, again, at that headline. This story screamed: Politics is all that really matters in this world.
That leads us to another headline that speaks for itself: “Bush funeral: Trump sits with fellow presidents but still stands alone.”
OK, moving on.
In this digital age, the Post also offered a timeline feature — “George H.W. Bush funeral: Former president remembered for integrity, service” — built on snippets of the service. When you do this during a worship service, some religious content is going to show up.
So what does that look like? Here is a sample
11:50 a.m.: Jenna Bush Hager delivers a reading
The second reading, from The Bible’s Book of Revelation, was delivered by another granddaughter of the late president, Jenna Bush Hager.
Hager, 37, is one of two daughters of former president George W. Bush. She is known for her work as a contributor on NBC’s “Today Show.”
I just love the fact that the “Today Show” earned a strong reference, while the actual verse from Revelation gets a pass — with no detailed reference (opening verses of chapter 21), no direct quote of the contents (“Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away”).
Later, there is a short “kinder and gentler” quote from Levenson. Like I said, it’s a timeline.
There was — this is fitting — a Post sidebar covering the eulogy by former President George W. Bush. This address contained a lot of religious content, concerning this life and the next, while mixing in anecdotes about family and political life. Check out this faith-free summary:
George W. Bush’s tribute was the emotional high point, and the cathedral filled with sustained applause as he passed his father’s flag-wrapped casket, resting on a bier that once held the remains of Abraham Lincoln, returned to his seat and wiped away tears.
The themes he highlighted — of service over self, cooperation over partisanship, family and country over political tribe — also suffused the tributes from the late president’s friends, who addressed a crowd of U.S. and world leaders all struggling through an era of crippling political partisanship.
Finally, there was the Apostles Creed controversy, focusing on You Know Who.
If you watched the funeral, you could see this one coming. The headline for the religion-angle sidebar in this massive Post package: “All the presidents at the Bush funeral service together recited this core prayer. Except one.” Here is the overture:
The Apostles' Creed is one of the prayers most core to Christianity. It states in a few lines the basic narrative of Jesus’s life, is the statement of faith in one God and is said daily by Christians across the globe.
On Wednesday, one Christian didn’t say it. And Twitter noticed.
Video from the funeral of George H.W. Bush showed a front row of presidents at Washington National Cathedral, standing and reciting it along with the program, as the voice of Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry boomed through the speakers to the thousands of mourners. Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and their wives glanced up and down from the programs they held in front of them and spoke the prayer, along with everyone else visible in the video. The program, as is typical, calls for the Creed to be said in unison.
President Trump stood, with his hands folded in front of him, waist-high, the program in his left hand, his lips not moving. Melania Trump also did not speak, nor did she hold a program.
Social media, left to right, pounced.
My take? If you needed proof that The Donald is a target-rich environment, then this is the story for you.
Personally, I flinched at this moment of the funeral rite. For me, it illustrated something that anyone paying attention already knew about this man: Donald Trump has never been a church guy.
What does this say about the state of his soul? Keep reading:
… (M)ixed in within disgust was a small voice raising a controversial question: Maybe Trump doesn’t believe the Creed and, therefore, shouldn’t say it? This was quickly answered by others noting that Trump says he is a Christian, often praises faith in God and characterizes himself as a friend of the faithful.
The Creed came about two-thirds through the service, shortly after the homily. While it’s a standard part of an Episcopal funeral, it’s not always said during high-profile funerals at the Cathedral; it depends on the wishes of the person who passed. U.S. Sen. John McCain was raised in the denomination but the Creed wasn’t said at his funeral earlier this year. Bush specifically wanted a proper, formal Episcopal service, some involved with the planning said.
So, what we have here is — as I see it — a valid observation about a specific moment in this event.
However, note the content at the end of this passage. It notes that Bush 41 was highly involved in selecting the content of this long and very explicit religious rite, in the Anglican tradition.
So I’ll ask: What do we know about his instructions? (This subject was discussed several times in the service.) What did the hymns say about this man’s view of faith? What about the sermon? What about the explicitly Christian remarks made by his son? Did I miss this content in the massive Post package about this event?
My final question: Is the only valid religion angle in this story yet another shot at Donald Trump and, well, lots of voters who probably don’t frequent pews in liturgical churches?
Does pounding Donald Trump trump all other concerns, even when covering a worship service?
FIRST IMAGE: From the George W. Bush library.