When Catholic Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan announced he would be offering a prayer at this year’s Republican National Convention, commentators were quick to weigh in with both words of praise and derision. Conservative Catholics such as Thomas Peters, who writes for CatholicVote.org, lauded Dolan for his willingness to establish “close working relationships” with Republican politicians. Centrist and progressive pundits, meanwhile, blasted Archbishop Dolan’s decision as overly partisan and dubbed him “The Republican Cardinal.”
But just days before he offered his prayer at the Republican National Convention, Democrats announced that they too invited Dolan—who publicly criticized the Obama administration earlier this year for what he and others claim were attacks on religious freedom—to give the benediction at the Democratic National Convention and that he accepted. That revelation prompted David Gibson of the Religion News Service to wonder if Archbishop Dolan’s bipartisan appearances could “upstage GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s Catholic outreach.”
What’s more, Sister Simone Campbell, head of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobby, and leader of the recent nine-state “Nuns on the Bus” tour, a progressive-leaning social justice campaign, was also revealed to be a speaker at the Democratic National Convention. As with Dolan’s announcement, pundits responded quickly, including Democratic political strategist James Carville, who quipped, “The bishops are Republican and the nuns are Catholic.”
In the midst of the back and forth over the political and theological alliances of Archbishop Dolan and Sister Campbell, many are curious as to what the presence of religious leaders at a political convention actually signifies to voters, as well as whether their participation at political gatherings violates the separation of church and state.
These questions are valid ones. Why do we pray at party conventions, and what does the image of religious leaders at political gatherings mean to American voters? More to the point, what are Archbishop Dolan and Sister Campbell actually doing at these events? And perhaps more importantly, does their presence help or hurt the parties?
At the intersection of politics and religion
While inviting clergy to pray at party conventions might raise the hackles of some Americans, the presence of religious leaders at political gatherings is not a new phenomenon. American political conventions, like inaugurations and sessions of Congress, have always included prayers from prominent Christian clergy and other religious figures. In fact, some of the earliest Democratic conventions in the 1830s were held in churches.
These days, allowing party officials to share the stage with religious leaders is something of a practical decision for convention organizers. True, some clergy used political events as a gateway into electoral politics, but having clergy members on the convention stage is a way for a party to show religious voters that they are “faith friendly.”
Moreover, inviting prayer is considered a good way to showcase an idealized vision of a party’s religious diversity. The Republican convention in Tampa included prayers from a Catholic bishop, an Orthodox rabbi, a Hispanic evangelical pastor, a Sikh cleric, a Greek Orthodox archbishop, and two Mormon religious leaders. With few exceptions, this panel of preachers represents constituencies that make up a sizable percentage of the American—and particularly the Republican—electorate.
Not to be outdone, the Democratic National Convention boasted an equally diverse lineup of faith leaders who reflect the party’s multifaceted base of supporters and, like the Republicans, have the potential to help expand the appeal of the Democratic party among religious voters.
Most religions claim politically diverse flocks, meaning faith leaders find themselves routinely courted by both parties. Archbishop Dolan, for example, is by no means the first cleric to be asked to pray at both conventions. Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Church in America prayed at both political gatherings in 2008, and famed Christian evangelist Billy Graham did the same in 1968.
In short, while the image of religious leaders hobnobbing with politicians might rub some the wrong way, it is certainly not unprecedented. Moreover, the mere fact that religion plays a significant part in the lives and voting patterns of most Americans (more than 94 percent claim to believe in God) means religious groups—and by extension, religious leaders—are destined to play an important role at Democratic and Republican conventions for years to come.
Archbishop Dolan: Ears to hear?
Best intentions of convention organizers notwithstanding, faith leaders who pray at conventions sometimes spark controversy. When it came time for Archbishop Dolan to deliver his prayers at the Republican and Democratic conventions, he didn’t shy away from difficult subjects. In fact, his prayers stand in a lengthy American tradition of faith leaders such as Rev. Billy Graham and Rev. Jerry Falwell who used institutional religious clout or status to weigh in on political issues, even when it caused debate.
But the potential for controversy wasn’t Archbishop Dolan’s biggest problem. Instead, the main issue for his style of religious advocacy is whether anyone will listen–or whether anyone could actually hear him. His prayer at the Republican convention, for instance, included a possible reference to immigration reform that had the potential to irk some conservative Republicans.
“Bless those families whose ancestors arrived on these shores generations ago,” Dolan said, “as well as those families that have come recently, to build a better future while weaving their lives into the rich tapestry of America.”
Archbishop Dolan’s words, however, were difficult to make out, as many of the convention delegates were busy loudly popping balloons that fell from the ceiling to celebrate the close of the convention.
He got a second chance at the Democratic convention the following week, with an even more politically targeted benediction. He spoke fondly of Republican vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), using prayerful language to voice views contrary to the Democratic platform.
He referenced the need to respect “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” a possible dig at marriage equality, and gestured to the debate over religious liberty and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’s current lawsuit against the Obama administration by asking God to “Renew in all our people a profound respect for religious liberty: the first, most cherished freedom bequeathed upon us at our Founding.”
But few outside the convention hall saw his moment at the DNC podium. Many television viewers undoubtedly already turned the channel after President Barack Obama’s speech earlier in the evening, and some networks reportedly cut away from the proceedings before the prayer even began.
But even if viewers heard Dolan, neither political party risks much by allowing prayers from religious leaders who don’t necessarily tow the party line. The Rev. Billy Graham stirred controversy for Democrats in 1968 when he prayed at the Democratic convention while simultaneously supporting Republican Richard Nixon’s candidacy for president.
Republicans and Democrats likely asked Archbishop Dolan to pray for the same reasons they asked Rev. Graham in 1968—he is a prominent religious figure who represents the leadership of an important voting bloc (Catholics make up a quarter of the electorate), and thus is a good conduit to conduct strategic “faith outreach.”
Despite all the bluster and targeted language, Archbishop Dolan’s prayers received far less coverage than did the decision to invite him in the first place. True, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) did offer a somewhat strategic introduction of Archbishop Dolan, but it was ultimately the bishop’s presence, not his words, that constituted a memorable political act.
Sister Campbell: Preaching, not praying
Sister Campbell’s journey to the Democratic National Convention took a markedly different route than that of the Archbishop. Since Sister Campbell is a nun, and thus technically Catholic laity, she is not automatically granted the status accorded to clergy. Instead, her string of faith-led political victories catapulted Sister Campbell to prominence among progressives.
Over the past two years, she advocated strongly for passage of the Affordable Care Act, went toe to toe with conservative pundits such as Bill O’Reilly on issues of poverty, and launched the “Nuns on the Bus” tour through nine states decrying the Republican-backed budget that passed the House of Representatives as unjust and immoral for slashing safety net programs that serve the poor while increasing tax cuts for the wealthy.
Sister Campbell also differed from Archbishop Dolan in that she was asked to address the convention—in prime time, no less—instead of pray. Asking a faith leader who isn’t an elected official to give a televised speech before a national party convention is exceedingly rare, if not unprecedented. Moreover, while the invitation highlights the impact Campbell and other Catholic nuns carry over the American political landscape, it also risked offending Democrats who wanted a firmer separation of church and state.
But Sister Campbell walked the church-state line with delicate precision. In fact, she reportedly threatened to pull out after handlers revised her speech in a way she felt was “too political.” Instead, she used the stories of others to highlight issues dear to Democrats.
She spoke about the role of health care, for instance, by telling the story of Margaret, a woman Sister Campbell learned about on her “Nuns on the Bus” tour who lost her health insurance and subsequently died of cancer. “She died unnecessarily,” Campbell said, adding, “The Affordable Care Act will cover people like Margaret.”
Thus, Sister Campbell’s speech offers a different model for how faith leaders can operate in the political sphere. While the gathering itself was partisan, her speech called on “the 100 percent,” not a specific bloc of Americans, to join her in her religiously motivated activism. What’s more, her decision to use the stories of others as a means of expressing political opinion stands in stark contrast to the single-mouthpiece style of other convention prayers. It signals a different approach to religious advocacy and possibly a different approach to Catholic faith.
Sister Campbell also models a different kind of faith-led political activism. Granted, the decision by the Democrats to include her appears to be an effort to spotlight a progressive activist who also happens to be a Catholic nun. That might be a happy coincidence in a year where the Catholic vote is up for grabs, but it’s also a possible indication of something else Democrats would want to cultivate: the revival of a robust and energized “religious left,” particularly among Catholics.
Ultimately, Archbishop Dolan and Sister Campbell represent two different versions of “faith outreach.” Dolan’s dueling convention prayers, while notable, line up with the tradition of inviting prominent and/or politically powerful clergy to pray at conventions. Campbell, meanwhile, seems to represent a burgeoning movement of progressive religious activists who are developing an inventive way of navigating the church-state divide.
There will always, of course, be questions as to the motives behind who is or who isn’t invited to a national political convention, and the debate over the appropriate role of clergy at partisan gatherings will undoubtedly rage for years to come. But if the impact of prayerful leaders like Archbishop Dolan or Sister Campbell proves fruitful this election season, faith leaders are likely to remain fixtures on convention stages well into the foreseeable future.
Jack Jenkins is a Writer and Researcher with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative and the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.