PHILADELPHIA (RNS) They booed the invocation.
Sure, that may not sound like a surprising sin in a sports arena in a town that is so infamous for its unruly fans — they once threw snowballs at Santa Claus — that the city set up a special court inside Veterans Stadium to deal with transgressors.
But it happened during a prayer, at the start of a political convention orchestrated to crown Hillary Clinton as the nominee of the Democratic Party, the first woman ever to head a national ticket and one with a golden opportunity to become the first woman president in the nation’s history.
And this was the Democratic Party, which is trying to attract faith-based voters, a party that just four years earlier got hammered for initially dropping any mention of God from the party platform.
And yet, on Monday afternoon (July 25), many of the fiercest supporters of Clinton’s primary rival, Bernie Sanders, booed the opening prayer. And then they chanted Sanders’ name despite his plea that they not protest or stage a walkout “or similar displays.”
Granted, the dissident delegates — the “Bernie-or-bust” crowd of die-hard Sanders devotees — were not targeting God, per se. They only started booing when the Rev. Cynthia Hale, founder of the Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, Ga., mentioned Clinton’s name.
Initially there were cheers, but then the chorus of jeers grew louder, and then dominated. Hale paused, and seemed to try to redirect the negativity with a quiet “Hallelujah.” But the booing continued and then morphed into chants of “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!”
Hale smiled tightly, pushed on, and wrapped it up with a firm “Amen.”
The moment was the first of what threatened to become a wild ride as the next few speakers, and, behind the scenes, panicky party leaders, sought to rescue the convention from a potential opening night disaster. They rejiggered the speaking lineup to highlight Sanders even though he, too, had been booed earlier in the day by his own delegates when he urged them to support Clinton.
During the primary fight with Clinton, Sanders had roused a devoted band of followers with a message of economic populism delivered with the ferocity of a biblical prophet. Was he now without honor even in his own party?
Yet, as the evening wore on, efforts to rally the troops behind Clinton began to work.
Perhaps it was fatigue, perhaps fear of feeding the candidacy of Republican nominee Donald Trump, who surged into a polling lead following last week’s even more fractious GOP convention in Cleveland.
A young immigrant girl came onstage to tell her story of being reunited with her family, and there was a mother whose children got wrapped up in drugs testifying to the devastation of opioids. Singer Demi Lovato spoke about her struggle with mental illness — then belted out her hit song “Confident.”
That’s tough material to boo, even for the Berniacs, and after those speeches even enthusiastic mentions of Clinton’s name failed to rouse many vocal protests. Some Sanders supporters even taped their mouths shut in protest at their fate.
The comedian Sarah Silverman, a Bernie supporter, came out with the former comedian — and current Minnesota senator — Al Franken, a Hillary backer, and delivered one of the most powerful speeches of the night, which no one saw coming.
A few remaining Bernie boo birds started in on her, but that was a mistake: “To the Bernie-or-bust people, you’re being ridiculous,” she said in a casual smackdown.
Silverman and Franken then introduced the legendary singer Paul Simon, who performed — of course — “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
After that, Michelle Obama delivered what many believe was a speech for the ages in endorsing Clinton.
“Laughter and music helped turn this night from the angry and the petulant into the collegial and enthusiastic,” as PBS pundit Mark Shields put it.
That might have been a bit optimistic. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren — the other progressive hero of this campaign — again struggled with a few Sanders holdouts during her speech.
They were, to their credit, scripturally literate in their critiques, though with an almost fundamentalist fervor: “You sold your birthright for a bowl of porridge!” one yelled at Warren.
Those protests waned when Sanders himself finally took the stage. It was late, and well past prime time when he spoke, and he delivered a stem-winder of a stump speech. Yet his disciples were in tears.
“It’s a religious experience for these folks. It’s like watching a Pentecostal church service,” conservative commentator David French tweeted in perhaps the pithiest, and most on point, observation of the long and dramatic night.
But Sanders delivered for Clinton, clearly and convincingly. Will it be enough to bring the faithful on board? Will they lead the party into schism and pave a path to the White House for Trump? Or will they be reduced to a bunch of dead-enders who boo when they get a chance, but with decreasing return on their investment?
It’s not clear how many of those remaining in the Wells Fargo Center after Sanders’ speech were paying attention when Rabbi Julie Schonfeld delivered the closing benediction, but no one booed, which counts as progress.
Then again, Schonfeld, a leader in the Conservative Jewish movement, never mentioned Clinton. And she delivered what was the most biblically profound meditation of the day-old convention — with perhaps a sidelong dig at Trump, who party leaders hope will emerge as the one true opponent by week’s end:
“In a season so filled with chatter of ‘Who is Great’ and ‘What is Great’ and ‘What Shall Be Great,’
Let us remember Scripture’s clear, simple explanation of greatness:
God is the great, the mighty and the awesome,
For God defends the cause of the widow and the orphan,
And loves the stranger residing among you.
This is God’s greatness and this is the greatness the American people must strive to imitate.”