A Brief History of Mormon Prayers at the Republican National Convention

By July 26, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-07-22 at 12.20.41 PMLast week, Nathan Johnson, an African-American convert to Mormonism who currently serves as second counselor in the Kirtland Ohio Stake Presidency, offered the invocation on the third day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. Johnson’s prayer attracted a fair amount of attention, both because of Mormons’ widespread distaste for Donald Trump and his campaign and because of the prayer’s content. But Johnson was not the first Latter-day Saint to pray at the Republican National Convention. In fact, four out of the last five have featured invocations by Mormons: Steve Young (2000), Sheri Dew (2004), Ken Hutchins (2012), and Nathan Johnson (2016). Only the 2008 convention lacked a Latter-day Saint prayer.[1] 

I thought it would be an interesting exercise to compare their respective prayers, to note any commonalities between them (beyond use of thee, thou, and thine), and to consider the contexts in which they were given. What follows below is a transcription of each invocation, followed by my preliminary attempt to briefly historicize each.

2000 – Steve Young (introduced as “one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Mr. Steve Young”):

Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. This day, Father, we gather to acknowledge thee in gratitude for this great nation, for thy goodness, and for thy love. We thank thee for the privilege to worship thee, as those with different beliefs, but solid faith. We thank thee for thy spirit, that fills the minds and hearts of all, individually and collectively. And may we have that privilege throughout the day. We are here as a body to represent this nation, and feel the beauty of our differences in culture, race, and heritage, as a gift of freedom, one to cherish and protect. At this time of prosperity, yet great need, may every delegate profoundly understand and fulfill the obligation they have been given by the people and by thee, Father. All will be accountable to set the example for the world, to value the worth of every living soul, and value the liberty that is inherently deserved. May our own souls be searched in recognition of our obligation to the elderly, the sick, the homeless, the children, the noble veterans and present military, all those that are born and unborn, and to all those who look to our shores for respite. We worship thee, Father, and we thank thee for the beauty of this land. May we tend it well and account to thee for this gift. May our children look to their leaders as people of integrity, worthy of emulation. May those elected be filled with charity and love, and follow your commandments. We ask thee to endow this convention with an outpouring of thy spirit, so that all will accept this opportunity as a holy obligation. And tonight, we also ask a special blessing to be upon President and Mrs. Ford, at the time of healing that is necessary. We thank thee again, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen. 

2004 – Sheri Dew (introduced as “a business executive, author, and humanitarian involved in family-focused issues around the world”):

My friends, I invite you to join with me in a word of prayer: Heavenly Father, we come before thee as citizens who care about this nation to thank thee for this land of liberty where we have the freedom to live and voice our opinions, and vote, and worship as we choose. We are deeply grateful for the evidence of Thy hand in the founding of this nation, and in its inspired constitution. We are grateful for every man and woman who wears the uniform of the United States, and ask thee to bless them and their families. We pray for the wisdom and courage to protect and defend all families, for our nation is only as strong as its homes. We are grateful for a Commander in Chief who seeks Thy guidance. Wilt thou bless him with wisdom and courage. We plead with thee for peace and for our continued freedom; not only freedom from those who would terrorize us and encroach upon our borders and our peace of mind, but freedom from acrimony and freedom from lapses in our integrity. We pray for Thy Spirit to be with us today, that we may be discerning and wise. We love Thee, Father, and we thank Thee for loving us. We worship Thee in many ways, but as a follower of Jesus Christ, and in behalf of all who believe likewise, we offer this prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

2012 – Ken Hutchins (introduced as “Ken Hutchins of Massachusetts”):

Our kind and loving Heavenly Father, we bow our heads in prayer at the beginning of this occasion, and feel to thank thee for the wondrous blessings that fill our lives: The beauty of the heavens and the earth, and all things on it, that were created under thy hands as a lasting testament to us of thy love for us. Father, in a world of turmoil, where evil seeks evil, we humbly pray for those who suffer, both physically and spiritually. We pray for the little children, Father, those who are often left homeless and hungry and afraid. Bless us to see with compassionate eyes and to have our hearts filled with the desire to reach out and provide of our substance so that those who have lost their homes, those who feel the ravages of disease and war and famine, might receive succor and be filled with rays of hope and faith that mortal life will yet prosper them and help them to draw close to thee. We thank thee, Father, for the healing gifts of the atonement of thy son, Jesus Christ, and his resurrection. We know it is by and through those sacred offerings that we thy children can be cleansed and made worthy to return to thee. We thank thee for the gift of the Holy Ghost, the testator of truth, and the instrument through which we may have a spiritual witness of thee and thy son. Now lift us, Father. Help us to have a joyous heart in our homes, in our families, and in this great land that was born of the kind of freedoms that bless us with the capacity to worship to the dictates of our conscience. This prayer is offered in the sacred and holy name of Jesus Christ, Amen.  

2016 – Nathan Johnson (introduced as “Nathan Johnson, of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”):

Our loving Father in Heaven, we thy children bow our heads and give thee thanks for this beloved nation, for its inspired founding, and for the freedoms we enjoy. We ask for thy blessing upon tonight’s proceedings, and upon those who will be participating. Please bless all of our leaders, Father, that they may have wisdom and humility as they serve. We thank thee for all those men and women who serve to protect this country and defend her freedoms. Please watch over them and comfort their families. We ask, Father, that thou wilt bless our enemies, and we pray for those who oppose our ideals and seek to do us harm, that their hearts will be softened. Please bless all who are afflicted physically, emotionally, or spiritually, especially children. Bless those who are affected by disaster or violence or terror, those who go without, those who suffer with sickness, pain, doubt, loneliness, or grief. May they be comforted through thy spirit and helped through our acts of selfless service. Bless us that we may be a people that pray to thee, that with bowed head or on bended knee, we in this heaven-rescued land may praise the power that hath made and preserved us a nation. And Father, we pray for healing: Healing for our society, healing for the family, even that healing that comes through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. We pray that He who is the Great Physician may mend our division and contention and bring us peace in our world, in our communities, and in our homes. We humbly pray, in the name of thy beloved Son, Jesus Christ, Amen.  

There are a lot of recognizable tropes of Mormon prayer in each of the four examples above, many of which are to be expected given the venue: an emphasis on the United States as a chosen land of liberty, invoking God’s spirit to lead and inspire the country’s rulers, and a focused concern for those on society’s social and economic margins, to name just three. Many of the platitudes offered and blessings requested are similar enough from one prayer to the next that they might be able to be swapped out one for another. Each reads deliberately nonpartisan, likely a result of Mormons in the public eye being constantly aware of how their own partisanship might be inaccurately understood to be the church’s. But the content of each can only be fully understood in the context in which it was given. A quick overview of each, then:

In 2000, Republicans were seeking to win back the White House from a scandal-plagued Bill Clinton. They were also conscientiously reaching out to minority voters and to recast their conservatism in more compassionate terms. Steve Young’s prayer reflects both of those points, praying that (presumably contra Clinton) “our children [may] look to their leaders as people of integrity, worthy of emulation,” and singling out for praise “the beauty of our differences in culture, race, and heritage,” calling it “a gift of freedom, one to cherish and protect.” In their coverage of the convention, the Deseret News celebrated the expanding tent of the GOP, deeming it “not your father’s Republican National Convention,” and quoting both delegates of color from Utah. They also imagined Young’s invocation as a potential first step into the political sphere. The Hall of Fame quarterback had just retired less than a year earlier, and the Deseret News was already imagining a potential U.S. House or Senate run in either Utah (where he’d face other “heavyweights,” including “Jon Huntsman Jr., or Mitt Romney”) or California. What became of Young’s political ambitions is unclear. In 2008, he stated that “I chose long ago not to be publicly active in the political process,” though he and (especially) his wife, Barbara, have been strong supporters of gay rights in the recent past.

Screen Shot 2016-07-22 at 5.21.12 PMWhat Steve Young thought of gay marriage in 2000 is unclear, but that subject underscores much of the invocation offered by Sheri Dew four years later at the RNC. “They called me out of the blue,” Dew told the Deseret News after being invited to offer the invocation in 2004. “I do feel like it was a privilege to pray for the country in a setting like that. I think it is remarkable they invited a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to pray, and even more so a woman.” Indeed, Dew’s status as a successful Latter-day Saint businesswoman and author almost certainly played a part in the invitation. But so, too, did her emergence as an outspoken voice in defense of “traditional marriage.” Just months before the convention, Dew joined with others at the Washington, D.C. Temple Visitors’ Center for an Interfaith Conference on Defending Marriage and the Family. There, she gave a speech describing in detail the “dramatic and terrifying” prospect of gay marriage, and rhetorically likening the situation to that of “pre-World War II Europe, … when Hitler was building up his armies and starting to take ground.” Unsurprisingly, the speech attracted no small amount of attention (including some from within the still-very young bloggernacle). It also likely placed her on the radar of the RNC in the months leading up to the 2004 convention, where gay marriage emerged as a significant issue to a degree previously unimagined. When Sheri Dew, then, prayed “for the wisdom and courage to protect and defend all families,” she almost certainly had in mind primarily those led by a father and mother.[2] 

Screen Shot 2016-07-22 at 5.16.18 PMNo Mormon prayed at the 2008 Republican National Convention, but the convention that followed four years later featured not only a Mormon prayer, but also multiple Mormon speakers, and, of course, a Mormon nominee for President. Mitt Romney invited Ken Hutchins, a retired Massachusetts police chief, to offer the invocation in 2012. Hutchins had served as one of Romney’s counselors in the Boston Massachusetts Stake, and then later replaced him as Stake President. Although the television graphic that accompanied the livestream of Hutchins’s prayer identified as “Stake President – Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints,” Hutchins was at the time serving as Stake Patriarch. He was also suffering from leukemia and had just finished another round of chemotherapy. It is that personal background, more than any obvious political context, that shaped the content of his invocation (or at least how I read it), as he prayed “for those who suffer, both physically and spiritually.” But the political context is still there, reflecting especially ongoing concerns over the state of America’s economy (which was, of course, central to Romney’s campaign) and its involvement in foreign wars. Hutchins prayed for those “left homeless and hungry and afraid,” and then, in true Mormon fashion, asked God to “bless us to see with compassionate eyes and to have our hearts filled with the desire to reach out and provide of our substance so that those who have lost their homes [and] those who feel the ravages of disease and war and famine.”

Nathan Johnson’s appearance on the schedule for the 2016 Republican National Convention elicited some surprised reactions. Many Mormons, after all, have been outspoken in their opposition to GOP nominee Donald Trump, including Mitt Romney. What might Johnson say, people wondered. The answer to that question? Pretty much the same thing most other Mormon participants have prayed for previously at the RNC: gratitude for our freedoms, blessings for our leaders, and for opportunities to serve those in need. It is unclear whether Johnson intended his words as such, but they struck a note of reason, rationality, and charity amidst a series of speeches decidedly less so. Perhaps most striking was Johnson’s plea for God to “bless our enemies,” to soften the hearts of “those who oppose our ideals and seek to do us harm,” as well as his recognition that only God can “mend our division and contention and bring us peace in our world.” That message stood (and stands) in stark contrast to Mr. Trump’s claim that “I alone can fix” those problems.

Given both the uncertain future of the Republican Party and the place of Mormons within it, it will be interesting to see if future conventions continue to feature LDS participants.

_____________________

[1] I planned to search further back than 2000, but detailed schedules and lists of participants get harder to track down once we push back into the 20th century. If anyone knows of Latter-day Saints who prayed at the RNC prior to 2000, please say so in the comments.

[2] Dew’s prayer was also the first Mormon invocation offered at the RNC post-9/11. Her petition for “freedom from those who would terrorize us and encroach upon our borders and our peace of mind” reflects that context.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Cultural History Current Events Intellectual History Politics Popular Culture Ritual Sports Theology


Comments

  1. I found Nathan Johnson’s introduction interesting, as it seemed to imply (or at least hope to relay to the audience) that Johnson was a leader of the Church at large instead of a local lay leader. Others praying were either identified by their local congregations or given no organizational affiliation.

    Given Trump’s blowout loss in Utah, I wonder if Priebus was intentionally trying to promote Trump’s conservative credentials by making it seem that one of the most conservative popular religions in the US was officially participating in his nomination.

    Comment by Loyd — July 26, 2016 @ 8:04 am

  2. Yeah, I found the introduction of each individual interesting, too. I actually had the opposite reaction to Johnson’s introduction, and wondered if Johnson had chosen to leave his introduction deliberately short and vague, so as not to suggest that he was participating in his official capacity as a member of the stake presidency.

    Comment by Christopher — July 26, 2016 @ 8:13 am

  3. I do think you’re right that he was likely invited to participate so as to combat claims that Mormons don’t support Trump.

    Comment by Christopher — July 26, 2016 @ 8:14 am

  4. Fascinating and timely topic, Christopher. I think your context is appropriate and on-target. While Romney’s choices of speakers and prayers seems expected, it is curious how these other got onto the RNC’s radar. Do the “local arrangements committees” for the convention look for clergy in the area? That would seem to make sense in Nathan Johnson’s case. Was he delegated by his own stake president? I wonder if the RNC sought him out as both a Mormon and a person of color.

    I find it fascinating which ones mention helping the poor and suffering, showing compassion, and celebrating diversity (Young). While values of compassion and service are not limited to liberals, they are still not the typical sound bites for this kind of audience, perhaps (especially in 2016). I am less surprised by Sister Dew using her prayer to celebrate the Constitution, “family values,” and a call out to the military.

    Have you found any Mormon representation giving prayers at any Democratic National Conventions?

    And finally, whatever happened to Brother Hutchins? Did he beat his leukemia?

    Comment by Andrea R-M — July 26, 2016 @ 9:45 am

  5. Andrea–

    I’m Ken Hutchins’s son, and while he hasn’t “beat” leukemia, he’s still hanging in there. Sometimes I think the only thing keeping him around are all the prayers offered on his behalf, which is (part of) what makes this post so interesting to me. Thanks Chris!

    Comment by Zach Hutchins — July 26, 2016 @ 10:56 am

  6. Thanks, Andrea. I’m not sure what the process is for selecting those who pray at these things. Mitt Romney evidently picked his friend Ken Hutchins personally, but the others are less clear. Here’s my best guess for each:

    Steve Young was among the most well-known sports figures on earth in 2000, and (as I suggest in the post), he had some political ambitions for his post-football career. That he was also a well-known person of faith and prominent Mormon made him an obvious choice to give the invocation.

    Sheri Dew, as I suggest in the post, was likely selected because she was LDS and female, but what likely put her on the radar of RNC officials was her emergence as a prominent voice in the culture wars just months before.

    I would guess that the RNC desperately wanted a Mormon (as well as a Sikh, Muslim, Jew, and Catholic) to pray to serve as a counter to claims that Trump appeals exclusively to angry white Protestants. Why Johnson in particular was invited is less clear.

    Comment by Christopher — July 26, 2016 @ 11:08 am

  7. And thanks for the update on your father, Zach. Here’s hoping and praying that he does eventually beat leukemia.

    Comment by Christopher — July 26, 2016 @ 11:09 am


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