The problem with political prayer

New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan (REUTERS)


When New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan accepted a belated invitation to give the blessing at the Democratic National Convention, I wondered whether he would give the same benediction as he did for Republicans or tailor his presentation to his audience.

In Charlotte, we got the answer—the cardinal did some tailoring. While he drew upon the same general template for both conventions, the specific design for Democrats was fuller and more detailed.

When a religious leader gives a blessing in a political context there is a range of content choices from most general to most specific. On one end of the range is the choice to pray for general virtues necessary for public service such as fidelity and truthfulness. On the other end of the range is the choice to pray for specific issues such as the resolution of a war or the breaking of a drought. Lying in the middle is the choice to pray for the recognition of values that connect those personal virtues to specific issues addressed in the political realm.

Dolan chose to emphasize values. But while he did not mention specific policy choices by name, the connections with contentious political issues were clear to anyone who cared to reflect on the substance of his remarks.

Thematically, there was much shared between Dolan’s blessing for Republican delegates in Tampa and his blessing for the Democratic delegates in Charlotte. Both blessings were explicitly Christian: Christ was invoked, but God was identified as “the father of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” perhaps to affirm the monotheistic tradition that Christians, Jews, and Muslims share. In both speeches, the cardinal emphasized divine origins of life, liberty, and truth as well as the importance of the common good.

But within these broad themes, there were elaborations and connections that challenged audiences in Tampa and Charlotte to reflect differently about their values and their connection to particular policy choices.

In Tampa, Dolan prayed for the unborn and those at the end of life. But he elaborated and connected this to the issue of immigration, by asking God to “bless…those families that have come recently, to build a better future while weaving their lives into the rich tapestry of America.” Those Republican delegates who listened would have been called to reflect on their party’s position regarding immigration, especially because the cardinal did not single out “legal immigrants” as the only worthy recipients of divine protection. Dolan made mention of poverty as well when he prayed: “May we strive to include your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, in the production and prosperity of a people so richly blessed.” At this, reflective Republican delegates might have paused to consider the GOP’s positions on economic policy, especially since Dolan did not mention the concept of “subsidiarity,” which has often been used as cover for the Ryan budget.

The connections and elaborations were more extensive in Dolan’s blessing at the Democratic convention. Dolan prayed that those present realize that society’s greatness lies in its “respect for the weakest and neediest among us.” When he moved to praise God for “the gift of life,” “without which no other right is secure,” no one present could fail to think of abortion and consider how respect for the born and protection of the unborn are inextricably linked. Dolan seemed to implicitly call Democratic delegates to reflect on same-sex marriage as well when he prayed that we “resist the temptation…to remake those institutions you have given us for the nurturing of life and community.” Interlaced throughout was consistent references to religious liberty, which might have moved some in Charlotte to consider the full complexity of issues surrounding the Health and Human Services mandate.

Taken together, the blessings Dolan offered could be read as an overview of a contemporary Catholic political philosophy. His blessings were thoughtful and well-crafted.

But they do raise an overall question about what prayer in a political context should be about.

By being more specific about the values that influence policy, Dolan was affirming that religion and religious motivations are not simply private matters but have broad ranging implications for how we think about the political life. But by being so specific, the cardinal did open up the question of whether he was privileging one side or the other. House Speaker John Boehner, for his part, seemed to frame Dolan’s appearance in partisan political terms by introducing the cardinal as someone who knows the “preferential option for the poor does not translate into a preferential option for big government.” I don’t think many Democrats will move to identify Dolan as a supporter of their basic policy positions in a similar way.

And therein lies the problem with prayer in political contexts. It very well may be that a particular political party better reflects Catholic ideals at a certain time. But that’s a complex question that cannot be settled by a quantitative enumeration of points of agreement and disagreement. Ideally, prayer offers the means for a more nuanced discernment of the relationship between religious commitments and political affiliation. But there needs to be a space of silence in order for such a discernment to happen. In the clamor of both conventions, I wonder whether anyone had the space to listen to Dolan, let alone to God.

Mathew N. Schmalz is a professor and director of the College Honors Program at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.


1 Comment

  1. You hit upon a real problem for toughtful Catholics. Neither party reflects the breadth of Catholic belief. Catholic teachings are pro-life (anti-abortion and anti-death penalty) and believe in caring for the unfortunate. The way American politics has divided you have each party taking a part, but neither party taking all. So what party do you follow if you are a thoughtful Catholic and want to follow a party? And that’s a rehtorical question, because much like your personal relationship with God I think you need to determine how your beliefs apply to your politics is a deeply personal question and requires considerable soul searching.

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