The DNC's Odd Nod to Religion in Philly's Cathedral

(photo: Register Files)

Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s resignation and being booed down at a breakfast of her state’s delegation was not an official event at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this week, although given the coverage of the latest Hillary-related e-mail scandal, you could be forgiven for thinking it was.

What was one of the Dem confab’s first official events got little or no coverage. And it symbolized all that is bewildering about the Party’s approach to religion vis-à-vis the public square.

The event in question was the “Interfaith Service of Prayer for the Nation” held at Philly’s cathedral, the Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul. Planning for the event began in February by the Philadelphia Liturgical Institute, at the request and on behalf of the DNC.

The prayer service was … odd.

This was not because of anything that happened at it. The service itself was fine and actually quite lovely. It featured beautiful music. The service of readings was fitting and even inspiring.

Cathedral rector Father G. Dennis Gill gave an inspiring sermon in which he said our nation’s foundational documents are very clear about how the country is founded on the power and presence of God. Then he looked at our national situation today, which reminds us, he asserted, of a need for us to once again rely on that power and presence so that God’s ways are our ways. One of the ways we can do that is to pray, he noted, and also support each other in whatever works we can do.

All well and good.

What was odd was this.

The DNC specifically requested that a prayer service be held on the convention’s first day. It was to take place at the cathedral because of its proximity to the delegates’ hotels and the Convention Center, where many of the day’s official events took place (the televised evening events took place at the Wells Fargo Center, home to the 76ers and Flyers sports teams).

And yet on the convention website listing the day’s official events, it wasn’t listed. The meeting of the DNC’s Faith Council was listed and at a time conflicting with the interfaith prayer service.

And so it should not surprise that the event drew such a small crowd. (See picture.) It was hard to tell who were delegates (I’ll assume the woman with the stylish American flag scarf was one) and who attended just because. Several DNC volunteers were evident by their bright blue T-shirts proclaiming, “ASK ME.”

But there was not one Democrat bigwig. No Nancy “I’m a devout, practicing Catholic” Pelosi. No Donna Brazile (a fellow Catholic whom I love, despite our differences).

On the one hand, this is perfectly understandable. It’s a busy week. The bigwigs have a lot to do.

On the other hand, it’s befuddling. Donald Trump leads Hillary Clinton by 28 points among working class whites, many of whom are people of faith. The GOP candidate typically captures between 55-80 percent of the faith-based vote.

Trump will likely capture this segment again.

For if there is one thing President Obama has done in his eight-year tenure, it is to solidify the notion that the Democratic Party and his administration in particular are hostile to freedom of religion, the rights of the unborn, traditional marriage, and the right to freedom of conscience whether in the public square or in our private lives.

For instance, the Obama Administration actively attacked institutions such as the Little Sisters of the Poor. Despite federal law, its lawyers led the fight to eviscerate the timeless meaning of marriage.

Both the President and Secretary Clinton have spoken not of freedom of religion but of “freedom of worship.” There is a huge difference between the two. One implies the freedom to act in accord with your beliefs. The other implies religion is merely a private matter to be exercised only within the home or in one’s place of worship, but not expressed in any public way, especially when it runs counter to the conventional wisdom and the zeitgeist.

Chad Connelly, the RNC’s director of faith based outreach has said he wants to get the GOP’s percentage of the faith-based vote back over the 81 percent mark. Given all of the above, it is reasonable to expect that Connelly can achieve his goal.

To illustrate the point, a 2007 Crisis magazine article looked at the situation and is worth extensively quoting.

In 2003 … half of weekly churchgoing Catholics said the Democrats were friendly to religion; three years later less than a quarter felt this way…. According to the 2006 poll, more than four in ten respondents said that ‘non-religious liberals have too much control over the Democratic party’; seven of ten thought ‘liberals have gone too far in trying to keep religion out of the schools and the government’…. For this reason, [Democrats ran] some ‘religion-friendly’ candidates in 2006 … against vulnerable socially conservative Republican incumbents. Although the deception might have helped to add a handful of social conservatives to the new Democratic majority, with Nancy Pelosi (California) as speaker and Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vermont) as judiciary chair, the ploy guarantees that religion-friendly bills and judicial nominees will never reach the floor of the House or Senate….

Every chance Democrats get to demonstrate this new ‘friendliness,’ the opposite impression is reinforced. In response to President Bush’s request to Congress to provide educational assistance to children displaced by Hurricane Katrina, for example, Sen. Ted Kennedy’s (Massachusetts) initial reaction was to exclude religious schools from the aid package…. The special scrutiny by Democrats of the Catholic religious values of William Pryor and John Roberts, Bush’s appointees for the 11th circuit and chief justice, respectively, demonstrates this point. Senators Schumer and Dianne Feinstein (California), for example, wondered whether Pryor’s and Roberts’s ‘deeply held beliefs’ would prevent them from protecting ‘the rights of all Americans—no matter their religious beliefs.’

Surprisingly, Catholic Democrats on the committee, instead of expressing outrage at the resurrection of the old anti-Catholic canard that Catholicism is incompatible with American political traditions, joined in with their own litmus tests. [Senator] Richard Durbin (Illinois), for example, wanted assurances that Roberts’s Catholicism would not bias his judgment, implying that aspects of Catholic teachings are in conflict with the Constitution.

This bigotry is not new.

While Democrats were once synonymous with “Catholic Americans,” that began to change in the late 1940s when the Justice Hugo Black-influenced US Supreme Court began to interpret the Constitution’s establishment clause in a radically different way. In contradiction to historical US jurisprudence, a phrase by Thomas Jefferson to some Baptists in a post-Constitution letter courting their votes—“a wall of separation between Church and State”—came to be seen as gospel truth for secularist jurists and leftist icons such as Eleanor Roosevelt.

At the same time, however, leading Catholic Democratic congressmen such as Roman Pucinski, James Delaney, and future House Speaker Tip O’Neill used their influence and power to explicitly support the expression of faith in the public square.

Starting in 1968, however, secularists began their unremitting ascendancy in the party of Jefferson and Jackson. By 1972, they had wrested control from the Democrats’ historic Catholic working class base.

And just four years ago, they tried to drop “God” from their platform.

Today—as evidenced by last year’s Pew Survey—religiously unaffiliated people make up the largest bloc amongst Democrats. For the first time, they surpass Catholics as the Party’s largest group. By contrast, 80 percent of Republicans identify themselves as Christians, be they Catholic, Evangelical, or mainline Protestant.

And yet many believers who remain in the Democrat fold are people who consider themselves no less fervent in their faith than, say, pro-life Evangelicals.

This was certainly evident at Monday’s event.

But the DNC … why did they do this? Why was this important to them? Was it important to them? If so, why such a weak effort? This was an opportunity to show those nervous about its 40 year track record that its leaders get it, that they know they have a problem and people are rightly concerned, and that they intend to narrow the so-called “God gap.”

And I know they’re trying, sorta, but “in the days leading up to Monday’s (July 24) official opening of the Democratic National Convention, staffers were still scrambling to fill out a lineup of faith-friendly speakers and events to try to showcase their outreach to the media and a huge television audience.”

I’m sure God heard the prayers for hope and healing at Monday’s poorly-promoted service and even later that evening. But the nation didn’t, and that sort of seemingly blithely missed opportunity is the type of tone deaf unforced error that will cost the Democrats come November.

To what degree remains to be seen.