PREACHER IN CHIEF….Faith and values have become buzzwords of the Kerry-Edwards campaign as of late, but until about 10pm on Monday night, you didn’t hear a peep about them. Not from Gore — whose lone foray into religion-speak in 2000 was to comment somewhat stiffly that he often asks himself, “What Would Jesus Do?” Not from the myriad of small-potato speakers. And, surprisingly, not from Jimmy Carter, who has committed much of his post-presidency attention to faith-based initiatives like Habitat for Humanity.
And then Rev. David Alston, Baptist minister and former crewmate of John Kerry, took the stage. In the middle of a moving testimonial about Kerry’s wartime service, Alston stepped it up a notch, referring to the Senator as a man “who has always had the courage to speak truth to power,” quoting from my favorite Psalm (27 — “Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear”), and declaring that “Almighty God gave us a brave and decisive leader named John Kerry.” With every religious reference, the crowd roared a little more.
Sure, you say, but black preachers are adept at energizing audiences — why is this anything special? I’m not sure if I can articulate it, but there was a shift in the type of energy in the room when Alston hit those key notes, the emotion seemed to swell in a way that it did not throughout the rest of his remarks. I note this not by way of arguing that all Democrats should start praising the Almighty in their speeches but to point out that what is often characterized as a mostly secular crowd — Democratic delegates — was not only open to a bit of religion-speak but seemed to respond positively to it.
Hillary Clinton — who has been working behind-the-scenes in the Senate for the past year to convince her colleagues to “take back” the concepts of religion and values and morality from Republicans — gave a fairly dry speech that failed to touch on any of those issues. Her only ad lib of the night, however, was to praise the “witnessing” of Rev. Alston.
The star of the night, Bill Clinton, proved once again that he can match the Republican strategy of using religious code words and phrases to reach out to moderate people of faith and then do them one better by using the tactic not to pander to those same listeners, but instead to challenge them to reflect on which set of political ideals best matches their religious principles.
Early in his speech, Clinton made a broad generalization — “all Americans honor freedom and faith and family” — that’s not entirely true (some 10 to 15 percent of Americans describe themselves as not religious), but that set the tone for his speech, which was really an appeal to those voters in the middle. You’re not a bad person if you supported Bush before, he told them. We’re not splitting the country into good voters and bad voters. It’s not that Democrats love the poor and Republicans hate them. It’s a question of how best to go about helping the poor, how best to go about being a good global neighbor, how best to act as stewards for the environment. He made very clear what some would prefer to gloss over for simplicity’s sake: This election does not boil down to a choice between a party of values and a party of none. It is a choice about which values voters align themselves with.
What were the religious code words and phrases that framed Clinton speech? There were three separate ideas:
“Send Me” Clinton began with this passage — “During the Vietnam War, many young men–including the current president, the vice president, and me–could have gone to Vietnam but didn’t. John Kerry came from a privileged background and could have avoided it, too. Instead, he said, ‘send me.’” He continued on, outlining Kerry’s lifetime of public service by noting that everytime his country has asked something of him, John Kerry has replied, “Send me.” It was a nice little phrase for the audience to yell back at Clinton, but it comes from the prophet Isaiah (6:8) — “Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
Using the Talents In a short section promoting John Edwards, Clinton described the vice presidential nominee as a man “who has used his talents to improve the lives of people.” That’s a reference to the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25) and a subtle dig at Bush, a man who has been given much and of whom nothing much has been expected. In the parable, the servant who uses his talents is praised by God (“Well done, my good and faithful servant”), but the one who hides his talents away for himself is shamed.
A Time to Choose This last was Clinton’s most subtle use of religious rhetoric, echoing Ecclesiastes 3, which begins “There is a time for everything” and then lists choices in pairs. For the most part, the poet begins with more destructive choices — “a time to tear” or “a time for war” — and ends with hopeful ones — “a time to mend” or “a time for peace”. There is time to disagree, Clinton said, and we’ve tried it your way, but now it’s time to come together.