After more than 30 years of teaching religion, I have concluded that all religion, not just my own Christian faith, is about finding answers to two questions: Am I alone and what can I trust?
By that measure the Democratic National Convention, just completed in Charlotte, was the most religious in my memory.
The Democrats asked us to consider whether we are all just on our own, alone in both our successes and failures, or are we together? They also hit the theme of whether voters can trust the “fact-challenged” Republicans; some speakers made that point more forcefully than others.
Explicit God-language, on the other hand, didn’t do so well, at least in the platform. That issue, as it emerged, is an accurate reflection of our national divisions on whether religious freedom includes freedom from religious dominance. It is not, however, reason to imply that Democrats are “godless,” as Republicans have tried to do.
President Obama, in his nomination acceptance speech, reframed this issue, folding all of our protected freedoms into the spiritual grounding they have in our Constitution, “We believe we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights - rights that no man or government can take away.”
This freedom, the president intoned, is not a selfish freedom, “a freedom which only asks what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism.” That kind of freedom “is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.”
And then the president quoted the Bible, saying “They remind me, in the words of Scripture, that ours is a “future filled with hope.”
That’s not just scripture, but biblical theology. That’s why I know Democrats aren’t “godless” because biblical theology was alive and well at the DNC, not only in the president’s acceptance speech, but amazingly well represented by Sister Simon Campbell of the “Nuns on the Bus” tour. Campbell demonstrated why nuns are such good religious teachers: she taught a lesson in budgets and morality for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and running mate Paul Ryan. She said “they’re wrong” about their budget commitments because, simply, “I am my sister’s keeper, I am my brother’s keeper.”
Biblical text and biblical theology made it to the Democratic National Convention. But it was former President Bill Clinton who preached. As Episcopal priest the Rev. Susan Russell tweeted, “Overheard in the @ABC News booth: @donnabrazile on Clinton: “That was church, y’all. I don’t have to go for two weeks.”
Clinton hit both these religious themes: “We believe that ‘we’re all in this together’ is a far better philosophy than ‘you’re on your own.’ The former president also took on GOP’s statements and ads about both Medicare and welfare reform, saying that they were “’just not true.” He went on to say: “But I am telling you, the claim that President Obama weakened welfare reform’s work requirement is just not true. But they keep on running ads claiming it.”
Clinton outlined a stark choice between the Democratic and Republican visions. “If you want a ‘you’re on your own, winner take all society’ you should support the Republican ticket. If you want a country of shared opportunities and shared responsibilities - a ‘we’re all in it together’ society, you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden.”
I had thought, when this convention began, that it would be the first “women’s political convention” since the Seneca Falls women’s rights convention in 1848. As it turned out, this was not a “women’s convention,” but at times it came quite close. On the first night, there were so many women speakers, including the warm and powerful speech by first lady Michelle Obama, that I felt as a woman and a citizen I was truly being seen and heard.
While women speakers dominated the platform addresses, there was astonishing denigration of these speakers. CNN contributor Erick Erickson tweeted: ”First night of the Vagina Monologues in Charlotte going as expected.”An online petition sprang up, calling on CNN to fire Erickson. It reportedly has “tens of thousands” of signatures.
How many times do we have to prove that women are equal human beings, and, as I as a Christian believe, created in the image of God? How many times?
At least at the DNC, women didn’t have to prove over and over that they are human. And it was a cause for great celebration that gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender Americans did not have to prove that either. This was decisively demonstrated on the last and important night of the convention when speakers included Wis. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, an openly gay member of the House who is running to be the first openly gay senator, spoke, and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the first openly gay member of Congress.
Women of all ages and walks of life spoke during the convention, as evidenced by addresses that ranged from Campbell to the newly minted law school graduate Sandra Fluke. Fluke, of course, was famously kept from testifying on a House panel on contraception, a panel that then included only men. “Many women are shut out and silenced” by Republicans, Fluke noted, but the Democrats instead gave “me a microphone.”
Women’s presentations were not confined to issues of reproduction, however, important as those are. Tammy Duckworth, a disabled Iraq combat veteran and U.S. House candidate, spoke about veterans issues, and Elizabeth Warren, the architect of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau who is running for Senate against Scott Brown in Massachusetts, spoke powerfully about contrast between the Republican and Democratic visions: “The Republican vision is clear: ‘I’ve got mine, the rest of you are on your own.’After all, Mitt Romney’s the guy who said corporations are people.”
Warren laid it on the line: “We don’t run this country for corporations. We run it for people,” she said, and “we build it together.”
Together. There it is. The answer to that question that has such resonance through so many religions: “Am I alone?” No, you are not alone. We are together. To build on Campbell’s call for us to be our “sister’s and brother’s keeper,” we can also have confidence that we are supported by one another.
I believe we are not, indeed, created to be alone as the first chapters of Genesis testify. Even when human community is not perfect, in fact, especially when human community is not perfect, we need each other.
The myth of the isolated individual who is alone in facing the issues of decent wages, safe working conditions, and proper health care is just that, a myth. As a person of faith, I believe we are created by God, and also by each other, as co-creators with God, by the way we treat one another in community. We are communal as well as individual creations.
So, are we all together, or not? As President Obama said, it’s up to “you.”