Terry Mattingly, On Religion
— Political conventions have always included prayers and, through the decades, legions of preachers, rabbis, bishops and others have stepped to the podium to deliver them -- whether the delegates were paying attention or not.
Then Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles faced the Democratic National Convention in 2000. First, he reminded the delegates they were in the presence of God and that true prayers must focus on "moral values, not partisan politics."
Then, in his litany, Mahony said: "In You, O God, we trust -- that you will keep us ever committed to protect the life and well-being of all people but especially unborn children, the sick and the elderly, those on skid row and those on death row. ... Give us the resolve to create those conditions in society where working people earn wages that can sustain themselves and their family members in dignity, and that they have access to adequate health care, child care and education."
After that, political leaders of all stripes learned to be careful when choosing who gets to pray in an age in which America's most divisive debates -- about marriage, family, abortion and sex -- have often involved religious beliefs and practices.
Tensions have been especially high this year, with a coalition of conservative Catholics, Jews, Protestants and others challenging -- in courts as well as pulpits -- the Health and Human Services mandates that require most religious institutions to offer health-insurance plans that cover sterilizations and all FDA-approved forms of contraception, including the so-called "morning-after pills."
The central figures in the resulting religious-liberty showdown have been President Barack Obama and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who is also president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Thus, no one was surprised when Dolan's Republican National Convention benediction included several references to religious liberty.
"Almighty 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," said Dolan, as he began his 533-word prayer. "We ask your benediction upon those yet to be born, and on those who are about to see you at the end of this life."
This passage set the tone for anyone parsing the cardinal's words for political content, said Deacon Greg Kandra, a 26-year CBS News veteran who now serves in the Diocese of Brooklyn and has been active in a variety of multimedia Catholic ministries.
"What caught my attention was what Cardinal Dolan didn't say, as well as what he did say. He kept the whole thing broad-minded, without getting too specific," said Kandra. "Most of all, there was nothing overtly political in this prayer."
For example, the cardinal prayed for God's blessing "upon those yet to be born" and those "at the end of this life" -- but avoided direct references to abortion, euthanasia or related health care issues.
In another passage, Dolan alluded to immigration -- a tense topic for some Republicans and the Catholic hierarchy. Without being specific, he prayed for God's blessings on "families that have come recently" to America and reminded his listeners they must "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."
And what about the high-stakes battle between the White House and those who insist there is more to "freedom of religion" than mere "freedom of worship"? In the most pointed lines of the prayer, the cardinal mentioned this issue by name, then linked this debate to natural law and belief in moral absolutes.
"Almighty God, who gives us the sacred and inalienable gift of life, we thank you as well for the singular gift of liberty," said Dolan. "Renew in all of our people a respect for religious freedom in full, that first most cherished freedom. ...
"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. Give us the good sense not to cast aside the boundaries of righteous living you first inscribed in our hearts even before inscribing them on tablets of stone."
In the end, said Kandra, the cardinal could probably "change a few words, a few names, in this prayer and then use it again at the Democratic National Convention. That was probably his goal."
Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.
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