Through One’s Own Eyes
Thirty or so years ago, soon after my wife Sue and I first joined Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Toledo, we met a young priest then serving as assistant rector, her first calling out of seminary.
Today, that priest, the Right Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, is the Episcopal Bishop of Washington, D.C., the first woman in history to lead that diocese, the one that, more than any other, is in the public eye. Though Americans mostly know her as the leader appearing from the pulpit at the National Cathedral speaking in times of national crisis, or the funerals of important persons, her role goes considerably beyond that.
And in some circumstances, she has been called on to speak for all Christians and churches in America. That happened last June, when she sharply criticized then-President Donald Trump for using the Episcopal Church across from the White House, St. John’s, one of some 80 churches she oversees, as a prop for a political message.
“And he sanctioned the use of tear gas by police officers in riot gear to clear the church yard. I am outraged,” she told the press then. “Let me be clear. The President just used a Bible, the most sacred text of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and one of the churches of my diocese without permission as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and everything that our churches stand for."
Her speech got national attention. I wasn’t stunned that the young minister who began her career in Toledo had become a national figure. I saw her potential back then -- and clearly, the leaders of her church did as well.
What she said at the time comforted me. I had personally felt revulsion when I saw Mr. Trump so inappropriately posing with a Bible in front of the church, and felt that Bishop Budde was speaking for me and many other Americans. Nearly a year later, I decided to call the Bishop and talk about her reaction, now that enough time has passed to gain some perspective. Though I am a scientist, not a theologian, issues of church and state are not completely foreign to me: For years I was a board member, and chair, of the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, NY, a place dedicated to the legacy of the man who was both a Supreme Court justice and the chief U.S. prosecutor at the military tribunal in Nuremberg that tried the top Nazis after World War II.
I knew that in 1943, three-quarters of a century before, Justice Jackson had written the majority opinion in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the Supreme Court case that decided that students whose religion compels them not to salute any flag cannot be compelled to as they say the Pledge of Allegiance.
Jackson wrote, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
This case involved two little girls, both Jehovah’s Witnesses, who had been expelled from school for not saluting the flag. Jackson, who incidentally was a nominal Episcopalian, had said disobeying public authority because of one’s beliefs is one of our Constitutional protections against the power of the State.
The remembrance of those two little girls rang loud and clear the day Bishop Budde stood up to protest when a President tried to use her church, and her Bible, for his own political purposes.
When I talked to her a few days ago, she told me that she had gotten so much text traffic urging her to stand up and speak out that she decided she must. And yes, she said she felt some pushback, but said I 'saw things through my own lens." The church, incidentally, had been slightly damaged a few days before those events, during a highly emotional protest over the death of George Floyd.
Bishop Budde’s statement may have been unpopular with some members of the Christian right, but that wasn’t on her mind. She had to speak up and say what she believed, as she saw it.
She’s been doing that throughout her career; in Toledo, and at St. John's Church in Minneapolis where she served 18 years, before being called to Washington in 2011. When she spoke, she told me she feels that Mr. Trump’s behavior at St. John’s began his pathway to losing last year’s election.
That’s not to say that she took her stand for political reasons; Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde was simply reason speaking truth to power. And as events unfolded, we learned, particularly on January 6 that the churches of America needed every single spokesperson more than they had at any time in the past century.
Bishop Budde felt she had been called to step in the path. Through her clear voice, the American church, unlike its German counterpart in the 1930s, spoke truth about the harmful rhetoric emerging from a nation’s leader.
Justice Jackson died at 62, far too young. After his passing in October, 1954, all eight surviving members of the Supreme Court came to St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Jamestown to honor his memory. It was the last time all members of the court have met outside Washington.
Whether or not she knew it, by her words and actions last June Bishop Budde not only stood up for his memory but for the beliefs of the church universal. For that every person, Christian, Jew, Muslim, plus those of no faith or another faith, should be eternally grateful.
Professor emeritus Douglas Neckers is the founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University, and a former chair of the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, N.Y. 3dscienceblog.com