Amid the high and low minded rhetoric and the “slamming” of the other party and its policies at this year’s Republican and Democratic national conventions there has been a backdrop of faith on display. Representatives of many faiths were on hand to offer up official and unofficial prayers throughout each of the conventions. Christians of all stripes, Muslims, and Jews were all represented to some degree either on the platform or in nearby venues. In an interesting twist, the same man, Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan, will have deliveredthe benediction both conventions. With the notable exception of a prayer offered by a man of the Sikh faith at the RNC the prayers were a relatively quiet and mostly overlooked part of each night, but a close listen to those prayers reveals the values that each party holds as they each seek to send their nominee (back) to the White House.
The prayers offered at the RNC, starting with the one given by retired police chief and Mormon Ken Hutchins, were largely vague. While I don’t doubt the sincerity of those delivering the invocations, there seems to have been little effort to really know anything about whom they were praying for. There were prayers for those who suffer from war, famine, drought and fire – largely natural disasters, but short shrift was given to those who suffer from manmade disasters, financial and otherwise. These kinds of prayers, while important and needed, can seem empty and impersonal. It’s relatively easy to pray for these uncontrollable things, to ask God to help those who have been devastated in ways beyond our control. But to pray for specific people who are suffering specific ills is a much more difficult task. That kind of prayer requires an empathy with the plight of the individual that seems to evade most public policymaking whether Republican or Democratic.
Contrasting most of the prayers at the RNC with the single prayer delivered by Jena Lee Nardella at the DNC drives this point home. She spoke directly of seeking justice, loving mercy and walking humbly as we seek, together, to build a nation that works for everyone. She put human faces on the message and mission of the Christian faith by mentioning her work with HIV/AIDS patients in Africa, and gave equal credit to the work of Republicans and Democrats in addressing the suffering on that continent. Her prayer and those of many of the other Democratic invokers called for the pursuit of justice and cooperation across all of the lines that divide us.
The RNC prayers were largely self-centered in nature. There was a lot of talk about liberty and freedom and being thankful for the various rights that we as Americans enjoy by RNC invokers. In contrast, the Democratic invokers spoke more of justice and cooperation, of collective action to address the needs of the people of the nation. Liberty is wonderful and absolutely essential, but it is also an individual quality that is ultimately a subset of the concept of justice. Liberty is coveted by the individual. But Christianity, the other Abrahamic religions and many other faiths, are not about the individual. Christianity is about how we, as a group of believers, behave towards all other people. It’s not about what we can get for ourselves (including liberty). No, Christianity is about what we can give to others (including liberty). If justice is served for all people, then liberty necessarily will follow for all people.
The end analysis shows that the Republican platform, as evidenced by the prayers offered at that convention, is more about empowering and enriching the individual, even, though not intentionally, if that empowerment comes at the expense of the body of people that make up the nation. The Democratic prayers offer up the hope of unity of purpose in lifting the people of the nation and the world as a whole even through differences in methods and tactics. A well known passage, 12 Corinthians 20-27 from the Christian Bible (New International Version), states:
As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand,“I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet,“I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
Whether or not you believe in God or have any great faith, if we, as Americans, can come to see every individual of this nation as an honored part of one body – a body that has rich and poor, lazy and hardworking, intellectual and blue collar – then perhaps we can also come to see that each of us rises and falls not only in proportion to our own hard work and responsible behavior but also in proportion to the work and ethics of our neighbors. It would be to the benefit of all Americans to act as if this was so.
Below are links to videos of some of the prayers offered at each convention.