The problem with political prayer

REUTERS New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, delivers the closing benediction during … Continued


New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, delivers the closing benediction during the final session of the Republican National Convention.

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.

View Photo Gallery: Faith is on display at the gathering of delegates in Charlotte.

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.

Mathew N. Schmalz
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  • betsys2003

    Ideally, there would BE no prayer at a political event. It should be like public schools – you want to pray on your own? Fine. But it’s not a sanctioned event.

  • DaveHarris

    I was at a high school basketball game one time where one of the teams, from a “Christian” school, prayed to their god for a victory. As an atheist, I thought, “What’s the point of a god if you can’t ask him to win basketball games for you?” But my fellow parents, who called themselves Christians, were not so easily pacified. “What are we, ‘chopped liver’?” they cried, and proceeded to proclaim their own prayer for the defeat of the other team. I don’t remember who won, but this is how religious wars start. Sad to think we haven’t evolved beyond this. But then, Republicans don’t believe in evolution.

  • mbarrexp

    Our country’s founders agreed on a constitution that deliberately left out any mention of God. Religion was addressed only twice: in the prohibition of any religious test for office (Art. VI par.3) , and the elegant start to the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religi or prohibiting the free exercise thereof… . ” It’s hard for the right wing to accept that our constitution is godless, but it’s simply a fact.

  • BennyFactor1

    If you have FAITH that God is in control of both our individual and shared destinies, then politics should rightly seem trivial to our religiouys leaders. And in their attempts to please the politically (rather than spiritually) motivated, there is always the temptation to water-down the spirit-filled truth.

    All a religious leader can do is to pray that God’s will be done, or he risks nullifying his leadership role.

  • Ed–words

    It’s sad that men like this give up so much in this life,

    gambling on the existence of a better one. What are the odds?

  • Kingofkings1

    The problem with political prayer is that it is an oxymoron when taken within the contex of the constitution and the most important freedom guaranteed to the individuals: the freedom of and from religion

  • beekeeper6

    What a colossal waste of time prayer is.

  • motiv8ed

    Without a doubt, Mitt Romney selected his running mate, Paul Ryan to gain access to the Catholic voters. I wonder how those voters feel about Romney’s belief in this part of the Mormon faith?

    Mormon Apostle: Bruce R. McKonkie
    “It is also to the Book of Mormon to which we turn for the plainest description of the Catholic Church as the great and abominable church. Nephi saw this ‘church which is the most abominable above all other churches’ in vision. He ‘saw the devil that he was the foundation of it’ and also the murders, wealth, harlotry, persecutions, and evil desires that historically have been a part of this satanic organization. (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine [1958], 130.)

  • curmudgeon6

    I suppose it’s a fair question to wonder if anyone listened to Dolan, or to God, for that matter. Would it not also be fair to wonder if Dolan had bothered to listen to Democrats? Did he listen to the LGTB community and its prayer for equal marriage rights? Did he listen to women who want the choice to make their own decisions over their bodies? Did he listen to women who want to use birth control? Did he listen to women who were raped and were made pregnant, and want abortions? Did Dolan listen to women with ectopic pregnancies, who require abortions to save their lives?

    The problem with listening is it’s usually a two-way street. I have to wonder how traffic was flowing when Dolan was speaking.

    As to listening to God, perhaps if He spoke a little more clearly and wasn’t so damned ambiguous, it might be a little easier to do.

  • rcvinson64

    Anytime the church and politics get in bed, trouble is coming.

  • ziggyzap

    It is hard to believe that in these modern times, the belief of a mythical Skydaddy still pervades the political arena.

    I am truly scared to think that any US president would actually believe such nonsense. Maybe privately they know that religion is a load of utter crap, but they have to proclaim in public that they are devout Christians because the moronic American voters prefer it.

    Isn’t it high time that you Americans threw off the shackles of this mindless drivel that is religion? Why don’t you ask for a shred of evidence to show that any one of the Skydaddies exist?

    How utterly STUPID and IGNORANT are you people?

  • mischanova

    The answer to your rhetorical questions is “He did not, if he wants to stay in the good graces of the US Council of Bishops.” He was pushing their graces by even appearing with Demos.

  • bowmanlenj

    I have to wonder about “prayers” that are really speeches.

    They are ostensibly addressed to God, but really addressed to the political constituencies. Shouldn’t prayer awaken in all assembled an awareness of the constant divine presence? Instead, Cardinal Dolan ensured that both parties were very aware of HIS presence and opinion.


  • clementw

    Prayer, individual. national or political, if prayed with Faith, Sincerity and Humility, is effective. For this to be true, the individual/individuals have to admit that she/he realizes that she/he is a mere one of the ‘Babes and Infants’ that even King David had the humility and wisdom to realize three millennia ago.

  • Wonder2

    There should be no prayer at political conventions period.

  • danaman

    “Political prayer” says it all.

  • Leftbank

    Rather than appealing to “God” with the perfunctory and cliched request to bestow “blessings” upon selected groups of people, why not ask something of ourselves: “Let us show respect for the earth and all of its inhabitants.”