SALT LAKE CITY — The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, dubbed "America's Choir" by Ronald Reagan during his first inauguration, will sing at Donald Trump's inauguration on Jan. 20, the president-elect's team and the choir announced Thursday morning.
Trump's polarizing campaign and history, however, left the LDS Church trying to balance strong reactions of pride in the choir's participation in a meaningful act of American pageantry and patriotism with a backlash of anger that it might be seen as a statement of support for the controversial president-elect.
“Response to the announcement has been mixed, with people expressing both opposition and support," church spokesman Eric Hawkins said in a statement. "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. It is a demonstration of our support for freedom, civility and the peaceful transition of power.”
The choir has been a regular at presidential inaugurations for more than half a century, performing at five for presidents of both parties. The invitation to participate in a sixth inauguration grew out of a visit to the Mormon Tabernacle on historic Temple Square in September by Donald Trump Jr.
Don Peay, founder of Trump for President Utah, said that during the visit to Temple Square, Trump Jr. was intrigued by the Mormon Tabernacle, which was constructed without nails, and said, "My dad would love to spend 10 hours here in the Tabernacle on Temple Square figuring out how they built this, because we're builders."
By the time that visit blossomed into an invitation and an announcement that the choir would perform, the Trump transition team was mired in another controversy, reportedly struggling to secure talent for inauguration festivities.
A change.org petition created late Thursday morning urged the church to reconsider sending the choir to Washington for the inauguration.
"The church's participation will harm this spectacularly talented and beloved choir's image, misrepresent the diversity of Mormons worldwide and send the wrong message to LDS children," the post said, a show of support for "an incoming president who has demonstrated sexist, racist, misogynistic and xenophobic behavior" that doesn't align with LDS teachings.
More than 1,100 people signed the petition in the first three hours. That number grew to 3,189 by early evening.
"This seems like one of the dumber controversies we've had," tweeted Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.
Trump himself made the final decision to ask the choir to be on the stand during the inauguration and perform with the Marine Corps Band when he is sworn in as the nation's 45th president, Peay said.
"It's a big honor for the state of Utah."
The choir is composed of 360 volunteers and serves as an ambassador for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Its name comes from the historic Mormon Tabernacle on Temple Square in Salt Lake City. The Tabernacle will celebrate the 150th anniversary of its completion in 2017. The choir has won two Emmys and a Grammy and was the No. 1 Billboard classical recording artist in 2012.
“The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has a great tradition of performing at the inaugurals of U.S. presidents," choir president Ron Jarrett said in a news release. "Singing the music of America is one of the things we do best. We are honored to be able to serve our country by providing music for the inauguration of our next president."
Participation in inauguration events has made others a target from critics. Trump opponents threatened to boycott future concerts by Andrea Bocelli if he performed at the inauguration. Some media outlets said the protests, using the hashtag #BoycottBocelli, prompted Bocelli to decline Trump's invitation, while the chairman of Trump's Presidential Inaugural Committee told CNBC that it was Trump who declined the singer's offer.
The Washington Post reported this week that musician and producer David Foster, a 16-time Grammy winner and longtime friend of Trump, declined Trump's invitation to organize the music for the inauguration so he wouldn't offend his friends who supported Hillary Clinton.
The choir will be joined at the inauguration by 16-year-old singer Jackie Evancho, who will sing the national anthem. Evancho became a reality TV star at age 10 as a contestant on "America's Got Talent." The Radio City Rockettes will also perform.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir first sang at a presidential inauguration at the invitation of Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965. The choir sang at his swearing-in ceremony and that of Richard M. Nixon in 1969. It performed at both the swearing-in ceremony and inaugural parade for George H.W. Bush in 1989, and at the parades for Reagan in 1981 and George W. Bush in 2001.
The choir sang "This Is My Country” for Johnson and Nixon and performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” with the Marine Corps Band for Nixon. It performed the “Battle Hymn of the Republic" for Reagan, repeating that performance for George W. Bush along with "God Bless America" and "America the Beautiful."
Johnson, Nixon, Reagan and the Bushes all won Utah's electoral votes in the elections leading up to their invitations to the choir to perform at their inaugurations.
Peay said Trump Jr. took a one-hour tour of Temple Square in September with Gentry Beach, a Dallas investor who was a key Trump fundraiser, and Mark Geist, a Marine who was part of the annex security team in Benghazi, Libya, when the U.S. government facility was attacked in 2012. The group also included Ret. Gen. Robert C. Oaks, a former general authority Seventy of the LDS Church.
Former choir president Mac Christensen, choir administrative manager Barry Anderson and Stan Parrish, president and CEO of the Sandy Utah Area Chamber of Commerce, joined the tour.
The choir has performed for five additional presidents, beginning with President William Howard Taft, who attended a concert in the Tabernacle on Sept. 26, 1909. The choir gave its first White House concert for Taft on Nov. 15, 1911, and later sang for Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter.
The nation's 58th presidential inauguration's official ceremonies begin Jan. 19, when the president-elect will lay a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery, host a celebration at the Lincoln Memorial, attend a concert and stay the night at the Blair House, as presidents have done for 40 years.
He will begin Jan. 20 by attending a private family service at St. John's Episcopal Church near the White House, followed by the swearing-in ceremony and a parade. In the evening, the new president will host two inaugural balls.
On Jan. 21, he will participate in the National Prayer Service at the Washington National Cathedral.