Performing damage control, Democratic faith outreach director the Rev. Derrick Harkins boasted that God was mentioned 30 times during one evening at the Democratic Convention. But the furor was too much, and after God had been removed from the party’s platform, He was abruptly restored Wednesday night. Reportedly the instruction came from on high, meaning the White House.
Along with recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, God was gaveled back into the platform after a dubious voice vote that included some boos from delegates. Wielding the gavel for God, perhaps appropriately, was former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, himself an ordained United Methodist minister who attended an evangelical Methodist seminary.
So God had returned. But Rev. Harkins, who presides over early morning daily prayer gatherings at the convention, was largely right. God had never really left, at least rhetorically. For all the big talk about secular, post-Christian America, religion and God talk remain about as big ever in American politics.
Some of the best God talk at the conventions, naturally, has come from the prominent clergy delivering invocations and benedictions. Nearly each one, before Republicans and Democrats, has been stately, slightly detached, appealing to the Almighty in orthodox fashions without hitting theological hot spots. Largely they have spoken the inclusive language of American civil religion.
Most prominent has been New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who has outspokenly denounced Obamacare’s contraceptive/abortifacients insurance mandate on religious institutions, including Catholic schools, hospitals and charities. Several Catholic groups are suing the Administration, with the blessing of the U.S. Catholic bishops, of whom Cardinal Dolan is now president.
Dolan’s scheduled appearance to close the Republican Convention with a benediction prompted the Democrats also to invite him. Doubtless his words Thursday night will be closely examined for even veiled references to religious liberty, the unborn, or traditional marriage. His prayer before the Republicans was masterful. The Christian clergy have tried to cite Jesus without proclaiming an exclusively Christian prayer at a civic event.
So Dolan opened: “God, father of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus, we beg your continued blessings on this sanctuary of freedom, and on all of those who proudly call America home.” He asked “benediction upon those yet to be born, and on those who are about to see you at the end of this life,” a soft reference to abortion obviously. He asked blessing on families with long ago ancestors as well as more recent arrivals, a clear reference to immigration controversies. He prayed for the “huddled masses” by quoting the State of Liberty’s inscription. Praying for office holders he asked, “Help them remember that the only just government is the government that serves its citizens rather than itself.”
Dolan thanked God for the “singular gift of liberty,” and he asked for “respect for religious freedom in full, that first most cherished freedom,” with implications for Obamacare of course. He asked that freedom be tethered to “goodness” while also praying for military personnel. “May we know the truth of your creation, respecting the laws of nature and nature’s God and not seek to replace it with idols of our own making,” he prayed, perhaps referring to the defense of marriage while carefully echoing the Declaration of Independence. He also quoted from “America the Beautiful: “May you mend our every flaw, confirming our soul in self-control, our liberty in law.” He concluded with praying for all around the world who seek freedom and by declaring: “For we are indeed one nation under God, and in God we trust.”
The Greek Orthodox prelates who prayed before Republicans and Democrats were less prone to skirt the careful edges of controversy. “You, who had fellowship with Abraham and Sarah, come and stay in our midst,” opened Metropolitan Nicholas of Detroit, who waxed inclusive while also echoing the Declaration of Independence in his invocation for the Democrats. “You have brought us here from every place on earth that Native Americans and immigrant Americans, people of color and of every tongue, might find not just hope but a land which seeks life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” He mentioned the unemployed and the needy: “Assist us to set aside personal differences so that the unity of purpose that we have will rise above us all as an enduring symbol of freedom and let freedom so reign in our hearts that we would never fear to lead the oppressed to freedom, never fear to give shelter to the homeless and displaced, never fear to treat our neighbor as ourselves.”
Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Methodios of Boston closed for the Republicans one evening with prayers for God’s “faithful sons,” Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, while also quoting the Statue of Liberty, and mentioning Republican Party chief Reince Priebus, who is himself Orthodox. Also quoting the National Anthem, he cited “intrepid members of our armed forces who place themselves in harm’s way in defense of our freedom, and like our Founding Fathers, are steadfast in keeping America the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.” And he prayed for the neglected, the hungry, the jobless, and crime victims.
The Republicans also had prayers from an Episcopal priest who pastors George H.W. Bush’s Houston congregation and who comes from the dwindling conservative side of that denomination. He also liked the Declaration of Independence: “We thank you for guiding our nation’s founders who secured the inalienable rights that you bestow upon us: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And he appeared to be an American Exceptionalist: “May America continue to be a light unto all the nations, enabling those who lead us to make dreams, hopes and aspirations of all Americans into realities, and to make the American ideal a certainty not just for some, but for all.” Plus he honored the military: “May we never forget that our freedoms have been won with the blood and the sacrifice of our patriots, always remember that our industry and innovation has been forged with the sweat and toil of American men and women, always believe that houses of worship and places of service are born of the fruit of your inspiration, the desire to honor and serve others, and may we never forget that we are at our best when we know in our hearts that we are not just one nation, but one nation under God.”
An Episcopalian also prayed for the Democrats. She was Jena Nardella, an Episcopal lay woman who founded a nonprofit called “Blood: Water Mission,” which helps Africans with clean water and HIV clinics. She attends a traditional Nashville church and has ties to evangelicals, including conservative Anglicans who have left the Episcopal Church. Nardella prayed for both Obama and Romney. Even more ambitiously she prayed for the election to be “honest and edifying,” while thanking both Democrats and Republicans for their help with ministry in Africa. More explicitly than the Christian clergy, her prayer cited Christ: “God I thank you for the saving grace of Jesus and for the saints who have humbly gone before us.” And she closed by quoting St. Francis.
The most discordant clergy remarks came from African Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop Vashti McKenzie, who also co-chairs the Democratic Convention’s Rules Committee. Earlier in the day before her invocation, she unapologetically explained: “So we are here in Charlotte to make sure President Obama returns to the White House …to take back the House of Representatives and elect a stronger majority in the U.S. Senate.” In her later prayer, she asked for divine help against the “ancient enemies again: injustice, poverty, apathy racism, and sexism, and an evil violence that stains the tapestry of the 21st century with the blood of the innocent and unsuspecting.” And she implored: “Do not allow again women to be enslaved by prehistoric ideas about biological function.”
Both parties would do well with prayers at their conventions from clergy who strive to rise above the partisan fray. Most of the clergy and other prayers so far have done so. More reassuringly, the convention prayers indicate that both parties realize that most Americans still aspire to a democracy premised on transcendent truths. Whether politicians hearken to the prayers is another question. But at least the acknowledgement, however uneven, is still there, and likely not going away.