Political conventions have always included prayers and, through the decades, legions of preachers, rabbis, bishops and others have stepped to the podium to deliver them -- whether the delegates were paying attention or not.
Then Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles faced the Democratic National Convention in 2000. First, he reminded the delegates they were in the presence of God and that true prayers must focus on "moral values, not partisan politics."
Then, in his litany, Mahony said: "In You, O God, we trust -- that you will keep us ever committed to protect the life and well-being of all people but especially unborn children, the sick and the elderly, those on skid row and those on death row. ... Give us the resolve to create those conditions in society where working people earn wages that can sustain themselves and their family members in dignity, and that they have access to adequate health care, child care and education."
After that, political leaders of all stripes learned to be careful when choosing who gets to pray in an age in which America's most divisive debates -- about marriage, family, abortion and sex -- have often involved religious beliefs and practices.
Tensions have been especially high this year, with a coalition of conservative Catholics, Jews, Protestants and others challenging -- in courts as well as pulpits -- the Health and Human Services mandates that require most religious institutions to offer health-insurance plans that cover sterilizations and all FDA-approved forms of contraception, including the so-called "morning-after pills."
The central figures in the resulting religious-liberty showdown have been President Barack Obama and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who is also president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Thus, no one was surprised when Dolan's Republican National Convention benediction included several references to religious liberty.
"Almighty God, father of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus, we beg your continued blessings on this sanctuary of freedom, and on all of those who proudly call America home," said Dolan, as he began his 533-word prayer. "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."
This passage set the tone for anyone parsing the cardinal's words for political content, said Deacon Greg Kandra, a 26-year CBS News veteran who now serves in the Diocese of Brooklyn and has been active in a variety of multimedia Catholic ministries.
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