Airwaves are abuzz with sound bites and video clips from the speech of Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the Roman Catholic social justice organization NETWORK and leader of Nuns on the Bus. In expressing her support for the Obama-Biden presidential ticket, Campbell spoke in terms of universal human appeal, but did not shy away from calling Paul Ryan’s proposed budget immoral.
From a religious perspective, Sister Simone Campbell’s message represents compliance as much as protest. She introduced her appeal not as her own opinion, or even that of NETWORK or Nuns on the Bus, but as an expression of “our shared catholic faith.” While news agencies quote her line that Ryan’s budget fails the moral test, Campbell actually attributed this determination to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). This is more than a hat-tip. NETWORK has been the target of an investigation and criticism by the Vatican and USCCB for failing to push the anti-abortion and anti-gay positions usually associated with the Republican Party. So why the open show of submission?
Campbell certainly does not seem afraid of criticism from the top; her leadership at NETWORK demonstrates fearless conviction. Rather, her compliant opening is a stroke of diplomatic genius. She chose to focus on an issue of agreement between the USCCB and NETWORK. She used the opportunity to invoke the name of the USCCB and the morality of the catholic faith to strengthen her position. These deft moves make it difficult for the hierarchy to criticize Campbell or the organizations she leads. Her phrasing allows the Catholic Church to fully embrace her participation at the Democratic National Convention. In fact, the National Catholic Register headlines its article “At DNC, Simone Campbell Echoes Bishops: ‘Ryan Budget Fails Moral Test.'”
From a political perspective — a Democratic perspective, in particular — the use of stark Christian terms to support or condemn a political stance has become unpopular in recent years, with Democrats tending instead to speak in neutral, nonreligious terms. CNN radio ran a story on the prayer meetings of Christian Democrats of America at the convention in Charlotte. Although CNN claimed that last night (with Campbell’s speech?) “Democrats put the word ‘god’ back into their party platform,” Christians who are Democrats are quick to point out that God never left the Democratic party, or vice-versa. Christina Forrester of Christian Democrats of America said, “The notion that one party holds a cornerstone on Christianity, that’s breaking and that’s what one of our goals is – to break that stereotype because the reason that we’re Democrats is because we are Christians.”
Perhaps it is past time for Democratic Christians to own both labels, and bring faith back into the political discourse. Or perhaps, as Forrester holds, faith and politics have never been far apart.