Among the many accusations and revelations in the explosive excerpt from Michael Wolff’s Trump administration tell-all book, published yesterday by New York Magazine, one episode in particular went largely unnoticed. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and key advisor, Jared Kushner, reportedly claimed to be an “internet Unitarian minister.”
There’s a problem: That isn’t a thing.
The incident, which ThinkProgress has not independently confirmed, reportedly took place on Jan. 29, 2017 — the Sunday after Trump signed the first version of his controversial Muslim ban. Morning Joe co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski were having lunch with Donald Trump, Ivanka Trump, and Kushner near the Oval Office when Trump asked about Scarborough and Brzezinksi’s relationship, which was still an open secret at the time.
“You guys should just get married,” the president reportedly said. That’s when Kushner, an Orthodox Jew, cut in with a suggestion that he could marry the couple.
“I’m an internet Unitarian minister,” Kushner said. Trump reportedly took umbrage at the suggestion, asking why the couple would have Kushner officiate their wedding when they could be married by the president of the United States at Mar-a-Lago.
It’s possible Kushner is ordained through the Universal Life Church, which offers quick online ordinations to anyone who wants one, including this reporter. But he almost certainly isn’t a Unitarian minister.
“Unitarian” is common shorthand for Unitarian Universalist, a liberal religious denomination that’s aligned with the mainline Protestant Christian church but doesn’t have a creed or doctrine. (Unitarian Universalists sometimes refer to their denomination as “post-Christian.”) In the United States, individual Unitarian Universalist churches usually belong to a national organization called the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, or UUA.
Only an individual congregation can ordain a minister — something called “congregational polity” — and congregations are free to ordain whomever they like. But the UUA sets stringent requirements for who can be in fellowship with the larger denomination. Since most of the UUA’s member congregations won’t ordain a minister who isn’t on track to be fellowshipped by the UUA, the two processes normally go hand-in-hand.
The full ordination and fellowshipping process takes years. Candidates have to complete a three-year Master of Divinity degree or its equivalent at an accredited seminary or divinity school, pass a rigorous psychological and career evaluation, get through a long list of additional readings, pass an in-person interview and written tests, complete a months-long unit of hospital-based pastoral training, and do an internship in a Unitarian Universalist congregation that often takes a year of full-time work.
Recently, some Unitarian Universalist clergy have discovered that they took on thousands of dollars in student loans and spent several years of their life training full-time for what is effectively a part-time job. As church attendance declines and congregations close, the UUA is beginning to reevaluate the ordination process, according to the Rev. Don Southworth, former executive director of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association.
“The idea you’re going to spend three or four years of your life getting a master of divinity degree, that you’re going to do an internship basically for free, that you may uproot your family to be able to move somewhere — that’s a model based on another time and place,” Southworth told this reporter last year.
Kushner may be an internet minister, but he isn’t a Unitarian one.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the date of a White House lunch among President Donald Trump, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, Joe Scarborough, and Mika Brzezinski. It took place on Jan. 29, 2017. It also misstated the Rev. Don Southworth’s title. He is the former executive director of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association.
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to clarify that Unitarian Universalist congregations ordain ministers, while the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations sets requirements for ministers to be in fellowship with the broader denomination.