This week’s Republican National Convention will feature blessings and invocations by a half a dozen or so religious clerics and leaders. According to the revised schedule, the faith-based orators are: Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, director of Yeshiva University’s Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought; the Rev. Sammy Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference; Ishwar Singh of the Sikh Society of Central Florida; Archbishop Demetrios. primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America; Ken and Priscilla Hutchins (of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Church): and most sensationally, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan.
This is a reasonably diverse lineup and for this, the RNC should be lauded. Of course, all of these speakers represent what sociologists call the “traditionalist” wings of their respective faiths. That these conservative believers vote overwhelmingly Republican is no coincidence.
The Democrats at their convention, naturally, will counter with platformers who emanate from the “modernist” faction of most of the religions named above. It bears mentioning, however, that President Obama did once try and reach out to faith leaders beyond his base of religious liberals and minorities.
But the Pastor Rick Warren Experiment seems to be over. The overwhelming majority of conservative white evangelicals that Warren—who delivered prayers at Obama’s inauguration—speaks for just aren’t voting Democrat this year.
Nor will they likely tune out, or sit on the fence, as a small percentage may have done with Sen. John McCain in 2008. The president’s support of gay marriage and his alleged assaults on religious freedom have energized the evangelical base.
Expect to hear a lot about religious freedom in the next 72 hours. Sen. Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee will lead the way on that one. The only question is whether any of the seven speakers named above will explicitly repeat the standard talking point. To wit, the oft-heard charge that the administration’s Health and Human Services contraception mandates signal an unprecedented trespass on the liberty of all believing Americans.
Yet bringing faith and values into politics is always a risky venture--a Scripture-laced slide to a news-cycle rocking, Todd-Akinesque implosion. One possibility that the GOP wants to avoid at any cost might parsed under the rubric of “theological disputation.”
Here’s one catastrophe waiting to happen: a breakout discussion by conservative evangelical attendees about whether Mormonism is a cult or part of Christianity (recall that similar sentiments were expressed by Rick Perry supporter the Rev. Robert Jeffress of Dallas last year).
Which brings us to a second flashpoint on the roster: the representative of the Sikh faith. Conservative evangelicals have shown themselves to be fairly receptive to blessings and invocations given by members of other Abrahamic traditions. They are, however, sometimes less thrilled when these are delivered by non Judeo-Christians.
The Dalai Lama’s mere presence in the Minnesota legislature a decade ago kicked up a small firestorm. Rep. Arlon Lindner certainly wasn’t the only one offended by his “anti-biblical teachings concerning the one true Holy God.” That same year a Luthern Church-Missouri Synod pastor was excoriated for participating in an interfaith prayer service after the Sept. 11 attacks.
A reporter looking for a scoop could do worse than to go trawling evangelical delegates for reactions after Singh’s remarks. Indeed, the RNC might just be hoping and praying that Singh does not pray (or talk about the necessity of gun control).
Jacques Berlinerblau is associate professor and director of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. His next book “How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom” will be released in September. Follow him on Twitter @Berlinerblau .