Booing as Sacred Act

July 26, 2016

Sometimes booing is just rude. Sometimes it's good to be booed (as Ted Cruz proved last week). Sometimes it's good to do the booing.

The first night of the Democratic convention last night brought a lot of booing, especially from some supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders who still oppose Democratic presumptive presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. It started with booing even heard during opening prayer. But that's not where the story starts.

Last week, 'prosperity gospel' preacher Mark Burns rightly garnered lots of criticism from pundits and clergy for his highly partisan prayer at the Republican convention. Burns thanked God for "guiding" Trump and "giving him the words to unite this party, this country that we together can defeat the liberal Democratic Party." His prayer moved from a sacred moment to one of profane partisan politics.

Last night, the opening prayer at the Democratic convention also turned partisan (although not as bad as Burns). Cynthia Hale, a megachurch pastor in Georgia, said during her prayer that the Democratic Party must follow God as a party that "celebrates diversity, values all people, and treats everyone with dignity and respect." She also praised the party's platform, telling God it "seeks to address the ills of our nation right the wrongs and help us be an just and equitable society."

Hale's tone was clear. She views the Democratic Party as God's special party doing God's special work. The delegates responded by applauding and cheering her partisan prayer. At some point, the moment becomes not just a prayer, but also a partisan stump speech. I dealt with this kind of mixing of religion and partisan politics as I analyzed nominating convention prayers in my latest book, Sacramental Politics.

(Cynthia Hale praying in screen shot of  video stream)

This is not unusual for Hale. She also prayed during the 2008 Democratic convention. During that prayer, she invoked Barack Obama's campaign phrase of 'change we can believe in.' Alluding to Obama's potential to become the first African-American president, she also urged God to help Democrats and the nation "make history."

Both Hale's 2008 and 2016 prayers were wrong, just as Burns prayer was last week. Such prayers are highly problematic as they seek to put God on a party's side, instead of the other way around. Last night, Hale then went more specific in her prayer, prompting boos.

"We have an opportunity, O God, to give undeniable evidence of our commitment to justice and equality by nominating Hillary Rodham Clinton as our candidate," Hale said.

Clinton supporters then interrupted Hale's prayer again with cheers and applause. It was the partisan prayer and the partisan cheering that led to Sanders supporters to boo. Perhaps some felt Hale's implication of Clinton as the righteous candidate was a slap at Sanders (who some in the Democratic National Convention wrongly wanted to attack on religious grounds).

As cheers and boos mingled together, Hale said, "hallelujah!" She then attempted to finish her prayer as shouts of "Bernie!" filled the air. She went silent for a moment, but the chaos she sparked didn't finish. So she closed her prayer, asking, "unite us, O God, in one party." Perhaps she should've practiced unity in her prayer, rather than begging God to bring unity after she created disunity!

And, yet, the headlines today are about how Sanders supporters booed the prayer, as if Sanders supporters out of nowhere decided to act disrespectfully. Some people who criticize Burns are also criticizing Sanders supporters while remaining silent about Hale and about Clinton supporters. If Burns was wrong (and he was), so was Hale.

The problem wasn't the booing. The problem was the prayer that baptized Clinton as God's holy candidate. And the problem was the cheering and applauding of the partisan prayer, treating the moment as just another stump speech. In that context, booing became an appropriate response. Once prayer is hijacked, booing becomes a sacred act.