Whistling In a Red Hat

I mentioned briefly last night that Timothy Cardinal Dolan threw a curve at the very end of the Democratic National Convention with a “benediction” that probably sounded vanilla to those relatively few viewers or listeners who saw or heard it (reasonably sure the broadcast and cable networks had all ended coverage or switched to “analysis” by then), but actually was loaded with dog whistles to the Catholic hierarchy’s grievances with the Democratic Party and Barack Obama.

Salon‘s Irin Carmon deconstructed it all quite well:

There was only one person who appeared onstage at both the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention, and he used his platform tonight to not-too-subtly snipe at the agenda we’ve been hearing defended all week, including a mention of those “waiting to be born, welcomed and protected.” That would be New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who was hastily added to give a benediction at the DNC after he agreed, to some controversy, to do the same at the RNC.

Tonight, he was given pride of place immediately after President Obama. ”Grant us the courage to defend life,” he said, and added, “Renew in all our people a profound respect for religious liberty, the first, most cherished freedom.”

But lately, when Dolan has said “religious liberty,” he’s really been talking about your birth control. This is the same man who was successfully courted by Romney in their mutually rabid opposition to the contraceptive coverage mandates in the Affordable Care Act, and who is suing the Obama administration over the policy — the same man who has called Obama’s stance on gay marriage “saddening.” (At the RNC, the statement was more muted: “We ask your benediction upon those yet to be born, and on those who are about to see you at the end of this life.)

And here was a very coded kick at the platform support for gay marriage: “Show us anew that happiness is found only in respecting the laws of nature and of nature’s God. Empower us with your grace so that we might resist the temptation to replace the moral law with idols of our own making, or to remake those institutions you have given us for the nurturing of life and community.”

Now the thing about dog whistles is that they are by definition subtle, and are “heard” by those who have the code, which in this case means people who are more or less already in the GOP camp, plus those of us who spend a lot of time watching them. So I doubt that even observant Catholics who haven’t joined the Culture Wars would be swayed. This makes you wonder what Dolan’s point was, other than to give his comrades the satisfaction of “speaking truth to power” at the very peak of the enemy’s celebrations.

If you look at Dolan’s benediction in Tampa, you could make the argument that he was doing something similar there in veiled references to immigrants and to the poor and suffering. But after highly conspicuous Catholic Paul Ryan gave the signature convention speech with nary an effort to discuss his own budget’s effects on the poor and suffering (itself the object of some episcopal displeasure), Dolan’s words didn’t stand out as they did in Charlotte.

All in all, he should have stayed home or stayed on less controversial ground.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.