The story is recounted from the years when the redoubtable Robert Maynard Hutchins was president of my University of Chicago: Two professors of philosophy were in the bathroom of the Quadrangle Club, and one asked the other, “Are you still working on [the problem of] God. The voice of the president came over one of the stalls: “He should let God work on him.”
But that advice would have been even more urgent for Hutchins’s old party, the Democrats, during their national convention last week. In the filmed records, we will now have a lasting image of delegates, on their feet, shouting their high outrage as the managers sought to insert at least one reference to God in the Democratic platform.
The outrage was fueled by disbelief, for it was clear to anyone with normal hearing that the voice-vote did not come even close to the two-thirds vote required to amend the platform. But the managers were compelled to call for a voice-vote: They could not possibly want a roll call, with a record jarringly precise of the number of delegates who were willing to vote against even a passing mention of God.
But it wasn’t simply a matter of adding a word to the platform. The issue ran far deeper than that. It ran back to the beginning of the American regime in the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration appealed first to “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” as the very ground of our natural rights.
The drafters declared that “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal,” and that “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” George Bush was not embarrassed to insist that these are “God given rights” – not rights that we had merely given to ourselves. For if we had given them to ourselves, we could as readily take them back or remove them.
And there was the heart of the question. If we could take surveys of the delegates to the two political conventions, the delegates would no doubt divide sharply. My own guess is that about 80 per cent of the Republican delegates would regard it as a settled truth that we were “endowed by [our] Creator” with certain rights, and that roughly the same portion of the Democratic delegates would find the notion laughable.
The Democratic National Convention: where God was booed
One task for the managers was to keep that laughter of ridicule from being overheard by the public outside the hall.
The mention of God came in a conventional sentiment, offered in passing, about a country in which each person can realize his “God-given potential.” That sentiment may be discounted, though, by the awareness that most of the delegates also think that babies in the womb are themselves only “potential” human beings.
And so we may wonder: when do human beings acquire that “God-given potential”? If we all have it, from the beginning, then the platform should record a pious commitment to “God-given potential, unless it is necessary to snuff out what God has given.”
Actually, some of the speakers came close to that language, for the need to defend the indefensible will drive that tendency, strongly working in politics, to generate euphemisms. George Orwell noted the dynamic in his famous essay on “Politics and the English Language”: “Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.”
The equivalent – or worse – was provided by Tim Kaine, the former Governor of Virginia and candidate now for the U.S. Senate. Speaking of the Republicans at their convention, he said, “Last week, they passed a platform demanding privacy for Super PACs and denying privacy to women making health care decisions.”
“Health care decisions” are rather like “reproductive medicine,” i.e., not “reproduction,” but killing, the denial of reproduction. And here, the euphemism covers the novelty in the law never made explicit: that the courts have crafted nothing less than a right to kill for one’s own, most “private” interests.
With his own large nature, and the reach of his Church, Cardinal Timothy Dolan was willing to encompass both political conventions with a closing prayer at each. The prayers were essentially the same. But with the Democrats, his plea for the protection of children in the womb and the institution of marriage stood in stark opposition to the doctrines that claimed the devotion of the delegates.
Some of our friends have taken that confrontation as the ground to approve and savor the Cardinal’s moment at the convention. But I doubt that the delegates paid much attention. They were free to regard him as rather like the balloons that float down on cue – just another part of the color and rituals at the convention, with a meaning the delegates were free to ignore.
Far more likely, I fear, was the reassurance to many Catholics still wanting to hang on in their old party: that the dramatic opposition to the mandates on contraception, the peremptory dismissal of religious freedom, the full-bore support for same-sex marriage and abortion – that all of this was high drama that finally made no political difference.
Once again, they could infer, one could support all of these things and still be a good Catholic. I adore Cardinal Dolan, in his conviction and warmth and that large nature. But I wish he had gone to a ball game that night.