People of Faith Challenge Democrats

( [email protected] ) Aug 27, 2008 12:55 PM EDT
DENVER (AP) — Religious leaders and people of faith who've been invited to the table at this week's Democratic National Convention are not sitting quietly with their hands in their laps.
Maria Peterson listens to speakers at the Faith in Action Interfaith Gathering at the Wells Fargo Theater in the Colorado convention Center in Denver, Sunday Aug. 24, 2008. Religious leaders and people of faith who've been invited to the table at this week's Democratic National Convention are not sitting quietly with their hands in their laps. ( (AP Photo/Bill Ross)

DENVER (AP) — Religious leaders and people of faith who've been invited to the table at this week's Democratic National Convention are not sitting quietly with their hands in their laps.

The head of a large African-American denomination challenged the party on abortion. An Orthodox Jewish rabbi raised his voice about school choice. A thirty-something evangelical Christian author warned against Democrats who mock believers.

Although well aware that party officials have political reasons for reaching out to them, several faith figures taking part in convention events say they want to go beyond talk about how faith and values inform longstanding Democratic policies. They are also calling for change on core Democratic issues, which could create tension.

"It's important that people of faith are being listened to just like other constituencies, that we're not marginalized," said Alexia Kelley of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, which has pressed the party to support policies aimed at reducing abortion rates. "Just because we're participating in the process and engaging people who may not agree with us doesn't mean we're just a mascot."

Religion has played a visible role at the convention, starting with an interfaith service and continuing Tuesday with the party's first caucus meetings for people of faith.

Beneath "Pro-Family Pro-Obama" placards, a range of faith leaders — and Joshua DuBois, Barack Obama's religious affairs director — framed poverty, climate change, human rights and abortion as not just policy causes but moral ones.

"Let's be honest: Religion has been used and abused by politics," said Jim Wallis, an evangelical and editor of Sojourners magazine. People of faith, he said, "should speak prophetically more than in a partisan way." Wallis is not endorsing a candidate and will also appear on a panel in St. Paul, Minn., next week during the Republican convention.

Wallis said religious voices lobbying Democrats have gotten results, including language in the platform that aspires to reduce poverty rates by half in the next decade. Religious groups also had a hand in crafting platform language that pledges to support women who decide against having abortions; that was possible in part because the platform also strengthened wording supporting "a woman's right to choose a safe and legal abortion."

One tenet of the Obama campaign's religious outreach is connecting to religious communities beyond the usual liberal-leaning constituencies that support Democrats — and that's where some of the challenges have come from.

Donald Miller, a 37-year-old author from Portland, Ore., is little known to most voters but revered among many young evangelicals for his best-selling spiritual memoir "Blue Like Jazz."

Miller was a loyal Republican but said he left the party, in large part, because he thought Republicans pandered to evangelicals on abortion and gay marriage to win votes without accomplishing much.

Democrats are "reaching out to us, and I'm not naive as to why — they want our votes," said Miller, who gave a two-minute prayer to close Monday's convention session. "But they won't get them and keep them unless they continue the momentum of adopting policies that promote the sanctity of life."

Miller cited progress along those lines — including on abortion. His other priorities — poverty, global warming — also reflect a widening evangelical agenda that might benefit Democrats, if not in large numbers in November then in future elections. Miller also said he'd leave the party if some Democrats keep mocking people of faith.

"I'd like to see Obama address that — say that voice is no longer welcome," he said.

Others invited to take part in the convention — including Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America — make clear their participation isn't an endorsement.

Even so, it's significant Weinreb was invited to deliver a keynote address at the interfaith service. He sides with Republicans — and apart from most Jewish leaders — in support of government assistance, such as tax credits, for parents who want to put their children in private schools.

Weinreb did not pass up an opportunity to speak at the service "for freedom of choice in education" — and he later credited Democratic officials for putting no restrictions on what speakers could say.

That freedom also was evident when Bishop Charles Blake, head of the 6 million-member Church of God in Christ, spoke of "disregard for the lives of the unborn." Blake, who called himself a pro-life Democrat, challenged Obama to adopt policies to reduce abortions and chided Republicans for not caring about "those who have been born."

"Are we being used?" Weinreb said of faith leaders at the convention. "I certainly didn't feel used. Obviously, politics is politics. I don't want to be naive. I also don't want to be cynical."

Critics of the Democrats are skeptical. Tom Minnery, a senior vice president with the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, said Democratic voting records don't back up the religious rhetoric.

"The party wants the voters," said Minnery, who attended Tuesday's faith caucus. "But not the values."

But Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, after speaking at a luncheon hosted by the nonpartisan Faith and Politics Institute, insisted that the party's outreach to faith communities is sincere, and that voices will be heard.

"The majority of our party people, they are people of faith," he said. "When we get elected, we don't check our faith at the door. We may not wear it on our sleeve."

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