Emanuel Cleaver makes the DNC his pulpit
The Kansas City Star
On Wednesday afternoon, the Democratic National Convention was U.S. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver’s church, and he was going to preach.
Delegates and media inside Charlotte’s Time Warner Cable Arena may have been expecting a speech. Longtime Cleaver watchers knew better. The former mayor of Kansas City does not give speeches. He delivers sermons. It’s what he does.
Think what you will of Cleaver’s politics. Or of his two terms as mayor — a success, by most measures. Or of his lousy record as a businessman — unpaid taxes on a carwash have dogged his political career.
But of Cleaver’s credentials as a preacher and pastor there is little debate. He knows the Bible, knows theology, is gifted with words and imagery and is a born storyteller. He led one of the most successful United Methodist churches in the Kansas City region while serving as a councilman and mayor and running for Congress.
Even now, after turning over the senior pastor’s post of St. James United Methodist Church to his oldest son, Cleaver is first and foremost a minister.
You can see it in his interactions with people. It may be different in Washington (though probably not) but in his public life in Kansas City Cleaver was forever running late. That’s because he is forever talking. It could be the mover and shaker of the moment or the guy sweeping the floors. Cleaver is always in conversation, listening and often dispensing what amounts to pastoral wisdom.
He is no longer required to conceive and deliver a weekly sermon in church, so Cleaver has taken to penning sermons for his colleagues in Congress.
Described in a story by Politico as Cleaver’s “eccentric weekly letters,” the discourses focus on civility.
Cleaver is a master of the parable, so he’ll talk about the inclination of frogs, for example, to jump into cool water and not figure out that if they remain in the same pot as it heats up and boils, they’ll be cooked alive.
The moral for those in the simmering pot of the nation’s capital: “It is not too late to hop out of the warming water of pathological partisanship, discord and political tribalism.”
Cleaver’s civility sermons are a hit on Capitol Hill, enjoyed by Republicans and Democrats alike. The choir isn’t exactly singing along with the preacher at this point, but a good minister never gives up on the salvation of his people.
Civility also started out as the theme of Cleaver’s convention address.
“I’m a strong believer that how we treat each other matters,” he began. “I cannot speak to you without acknowledging that the bickering and brinksmanship we see too often in our politics is advantaging no political party. It weakens our nation.”
He threw out a few good lines like, “We can be tough without being toxic,” and “We will never be better off without being better.”
The crowd was appreciate, but Cleaver could see that a mere civility sermon was not going to cut it. This congregation needed uplifting, and he knows how to do it.
“Now I greatly respect my Republican colleagues and their ideas,” he said. “But make no mistake: I am proud to be a Democrat. I am proud to be a member of this great party.”
He was just getting warmed up.
“Look, if being liberal and progressive means that I care for children and whether they go hungry, color me liberal! Color me a Democrat,” Cleaver cried. “If being a Democrat means I’m concerned about our seniors in the sunset of their life, color me Democrat! Color me liberal! After all, we are the ones who protected Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, who fought for fair wages and who ended ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ We are Democrats! And don’t you ever forget it!”
For 11 minutes, Cleaver had delegates on their feet. At one point they were marching. He picked up President Barack Obama’s battered theme of hope, dusted it off and, at least for a moment, made it shine.
“No matter what, Mr. President, you continue to hope! As long as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob sits on the throne of grace, hope on!”
The congressman from Kansas City is a preacher. Now the nation knows it, too. It’s what he is.
To reach Barbara Shelly, call 816-234-4594 or send email to email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @bshelly.