Conventional Prayers

September 12, 2012

The prayers at the Republican National Convention two weeks ago and at the Democratic National Convention last week sparked some thoughts about such prayers at political events. Mostly, they reminded me why I do not like such prayers.

1. The prayers often seem more like sermons/speeches than prayers. This is especially true with those who--like Samuel Rodriguez at the Republican Convention--read their prayers from the teleprompter instead of a piece of paper on the podium. This means they are looking at the cameras with their eyes open, just as if they are giving a speech. Rodriguez even delivers his "prayer" more like a fiery sermon. Additionally, some of the religious leaders even used gestures during their prayers (maybe that makes it more convincing to God).

2. The conventions are about winning elections, and even the choices of who to have pray are wrapped up in political motives by political strategists. Thus, the Republicans had Rodriguez pray as they hope to win over Hispanic evangelicals and both parties had Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan pray as they fight for the Catholic vote (the Democrats even only booked him after he agreed to pray at the Republican Convention, which made the decision seem even more political as they attempted to neutralize the political impact of his Republican prayer). If the prayers are selected with such partisan motives, it seems hard to see them as anything but political.

3. The prayers themselves often borderline on being partisan--even by those claiming to pray only in a nonpartisan, pastoral role. Dolan offers a good case study since he prayed at both conventions (both of his prayers can be read here). Dolan, a strong critic of Obamacare, has been accused of campaigning for the Republicans. His prayers give subtle credence to that accusation. His references to the candidates suggest a preference for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney over President Barack Obama. In his Republican prayer, he stated:

Oh God of wisdom, justice, and might, we ask your guidance for those who govern us, and on those who would govern us: the president and vice-president, the Congress, the Supreme Court, and on all those who seek to serve the common good by seeking public office, especially Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan.
A week later, he offered a slightly different take in his Democratic prayer:
Oh God of wisdom, justice, and might, we ask your guidance for those who govern us: President Barack Obama, Vice President Joseph Biden, Congress, the Supreme Court, and all those, including Governor Mitt Romney and Congressman Paul Ryan, who seek to serve the common good by seeking public office.
See the difference? He mentions Romney by name in both prayers, both only names Obama in the Democratic one. Additionally, he prays "especially" for Romney at the Republican one but not similarly for Obama in either. And in both prayers he attaches Romney's name more closely with the phrase "who seek to serve the common good by seeking public office." Additionally, Dolan's prayers take a side on the two critical Catholic positions in this election. U.S. Catholic bishops have criticized Obama for his healthcare mandate and Romney's running mate for his budget that favors the wealthy over the poor. In his Democratic prayer, Dolan offered a pro-life message as a way of prophetically reminding the Democrats of their error on the issue. However, he did not similarly offer a prophetic witness to the Republicans on their budget--even after Speaker of the House John Boehner, a Catholic, suggested in his introduction of Dolan that the Catholic leader supported the Republican budget's approach to the poor (which is not true). If Dolan had consistently brought a prophetic witness to both parties, that would have served the common good. Instead, he showed his partisan hand.

Perhaps at future conventions, we could do away with the political prayers and just tell everyone to go find a closet.