As Ronald Reagan looked on, a float bearing the Mormon Tabernacle Choir crawled down the streets of Washington, D.C., as part of the Gipper’s inauguration parade in 1981. Stopping in front of the president-elect, the Tabernacle Choir belted out a stirring rendition of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” into the frosty air. Visibly affected, Reagan joined in on the thunderous applause for the group he called “America’s Choir,” a name they have claimed ever since. Mormons, who for so long had struggled to gain acceptance as American, could now point to the Republican president for proof that they had made it.
Now the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has accepted an invitation to sing at another inauguration—Donald Trump’s. The upcoming performance has sparked a fierce discussion within the LDS Community. An online petition has garnered more than 35,000 signatures requesting that the singers back out. Supporters of the performance argued the choir is non-partisan and has performed for other presidents. The group, founded in 1847 and comprised of 360 men and women in Utah, only plans to send a portion of its volunteer members to Washington, and no member is required to perform. Even so, a soprano quit the group in protest, citing her distaste for Trump. She wrote in a statement that it will appear that the choir “is endorsing tyranny and [fascism] by singing for this man.”
The uproar over the choir’s performance mirrors Mormon divisions during the election, when many in the reliably Republican voting bloc initially opposed the candidacy of Donald Trump. He placed a distant third in Utah’s GOP primary. In response to Trump’s call for a U.S. ban on Muslim immigration, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published a statement, saying the LDS Church “is neutral in regard to party politics and election campaigns. However, it is not neutral in relation to religious freedom.” The LDS-owned Deseret News published an op-ed requesting that Trump “resign his candidacy,” a political move unprecedented in the past 80 years. Mitt Romney held a press conference denouncing the presidential candidate. Evan McMullin, also a Mormon, embarked on a third-party campaign in an attempt to thwart Trump’s ascension to the White House.
In the end, Trump won Utah and a majority of Mormon voters, but he did so by a narrower margin than recent past Republican presidential candidates. And now, despite LDS opposition to some of Trump’s policies, his inauguration will feature the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, one of the few musical acts to sign on for his inauguration.
The LDS Church has simultaneously justified the choir’s performance and distanced itself from the president-elect and partisan politics. “The choir’s participation continues its long tradition of performing for U.S. presidents of both parties at inaugurations and in other settings, and is not an implied support of party affiliations or politics,” an LDS spokesman stated. “It is a demonstration of our support for freedom, civility and the peaceful transition of power.”
Trump is only briefly mentioned in the church’s press release about the upcoming performance. Indeed, the statement devotes most of its message to cataloguing the choir’s performances for presidents. Undoubtedly the choir has a storied history there: They have performed at five presidential inaugurations, including that of Reagan, Lyndon Johnson, George W. Bush, Richard Nixon, and George H.W. Bush, who called them a “national treasure” at his swearing-in ceremony. They have also performed at the White House for William Howard Taft and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s history and national reputation roughly follow the trajectory of American acceptance of the Mormon faith. The LDS Church has been officially politically neutral since the 1890s, but its choir has performed only at inaugurations in which the president-elect won Utah’s Electoral College votes. While many Latter-day Saints believe the choir is filling its nonpartisan civic duty, the group’s post-election performances seem to serve as a reward for the support of the Mormon electorate in American politics—regardless of party. By singing at inaugurations, the church’s choir falls victim to this tacit politicization.
THE MORMON TABERNACLE CHOIR’S first performance on the national stage came at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The choir received second place in a choral competition, and their success at the event hinted at the changing public image of Mormonism as patriotic, talented, and American—a far cry from the impression of “otherness” that had led to Mormon persecution throughout the nineteenth century. In addition to their thousand-dollar prize for performing, Mormon apostle and future LDS Church President Joseph F. Smith (nephew of Mormonism’s founder) declared that the Tabernacle Choir had “done more good than five thousand sermons would have done in an ordinary or even in an extraordinary way.” Smith’s praise was more than mere hyperbole: At the same World’s Fair, Mormons were originally barred from sharing their religious views at one of the events. The choir won acclaim and acceptance for their church in front of a global audience when discussions of their theology and practice could not.
Eleven years later, Mormons fought another battle for legitimacy. Mormon apostle Reed Smoot had captured one of Utah’s Senate seats, and the Protestant-filled Senate called a series of hearings to determine whether or not the Mormon leader could fulfill his constitutional responsibilities. These men did not believe Mormons had ceased practicing polygamy (they were right), and they wanted to ensure that the LDS Church did not control the Utah senator. As Kathleen Flake has demonstrated, Smoot was able to take his seat through a series of political negotiations with Republican leaders, as well as LDS leaders’ agreement to prohibit new plural marriages. The next Republican president, William Howard Taft, invited the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to perform at the White House in 1911. The seating of Reed Smoot and the White House invitation to the Tabernacle Choir provided the LDS Church with a new respectability that reflected Mormon patriotism rather than polygamy.
The connection between the Republican Party and the LDS Church continued to grow throughout the twentieth century. In 1933, J. Reuben Clark, Jr., the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, ascended to the LDS Church’s highest governing body, the First Presidency. Clark was an ardent Republican, and he helped shape what became known as the LDS Church’s “Welfare Plan,” which called for Mormons to support themselves and not to rely on government assistance in opposition to the New Deal. This plan won positive press and attention from national news outlets and politicians. Just a few years earlier, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir had started appearing on a weekly radio broadcast; the program combined the choir performance with short, uplifting messages from a member of the LDS Church. The messages were not all Mormon-specific, and the choir’s performances functioned as a missionary tool that could introduce Americans to the Utah-based church.
After World War II, Mormons continued to make a name for themselves in conservative politics and postwar business. The faith had embraced the patterns of civil religion and the white middle-class culture of Cold War America. Amid fears of Communism and new norms around race, gender, and sexuality, Mormons, like many other conservative religious groups, became wedded more closely to the GOP. In 1952, President Eisenhower chose Mormon apostle Ezra Taft Benson as Secretary of Agriculture, and Benson began a controversial political career that aligned with the aims of the ultra-conservative John Birch Society. Meanwhile, the Tabernacle Choir toured and produced a recording of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which won a Grammy in 1959.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has performed for the inauguration of only one Democratic president: Lyndon Johnson. During his election, most Latter-day Saints did not warm to the rhetoric of Johnson’s opponent, conservative Republican candidate Barry Goldwater. Utah and Idaho, the states with the highest percentage of Mormons in the electorate, voted for Johnson in 1964. For his inauguration, Johnson invited the choir to perform, perhaps as a favor to his “old friend” and LDS Church president, David O. McKay. That year was the last time a majority of Utahns voted for a Democratic presidential nominee.
The performance at Reagan’s inauguration parade looms large over the LDS Church’s 2016 decision to send its choir to perform for President-Elect Trump. Reagan’s presidency is remembered fondly among conservative Mormons, just as it is among many other members of conservative religious groups. Reagan symbolized the rise of the Religious Right and the power of evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons in national politics—as well as the organizing of those groups for the benefit of the Republican Party. The choir’s performance reflected Reagan’s political success in mobilizing Christians to vote for him and other Republican candidates.
It is interesting to note that the choir performed for Reagan while riding on a float bearing a banner that read “America—A Great New Beginning,” a line that echoed Reagan’s campaign promise to “make America great again,” which President-Elect Trump resurrected. Like Reagan, Trump also galvanized white religious voters on his behalf despite his nominal Christianity. Like Reagan, Trump has employed dog-whistle politics to speak to white voters at the expense of voters of color. And like Reagan, the president-elect has invited the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to perform at his inauguration. “America’s Choir” and the LDS Church may separate the music from the candidate, but public perception will not. It is likely that the Tabernacle Choir’s performance will link Mormonism to the Trump administration, not only in votes, but also in the hearts and minds of those that watch them sing.
Joseph Stuart is a doctoral student in American history at the University of Utah. Follow him @jstuart87.