Steven Waldman

Compared to the 2004 Democratic Convention, the 2008 gathering is a veritable religious revival meeting. At the last convention, people of faith were treated as a worthwhile little interest group, roughly on the same level as mohair farmers.
What a difference four years make. By my count, there are at least nine different faith-related events. The week opened with an Interfaith religious service, led by the Democratic convention’s CEO, who is also a Pentecostal minister (!). At the Institute of Faith and Politics lunch, Democratic office holders talked about the role of faith in their lives. Events were held by the Faith Caucus, the Network for Spiritual Progressives, the National Jewish Democratic Council, and the American Muslim Democratic Caucus.
For the spiritual-but-not-religious there was a group meditation in a nearby park, and for achy bloggers with clogged chi, the Huffington Post offered massage and yoga.
Benedictions and invocations have been performed not only by liberal clergy but also by people like Donald Miller, a popular Christian author, who closed his prayer, “I make this request in the name of Jesus Christ.”
I was quite ready to be cynical about all this. Democratic operatives seemed to get religion less by reading scriptures than by exit polls (though it should be said, polls are sacred texts for some politicians). But what’s actually happened here is more interesting than that.

A few things strike me about these events so far.
First, they’re surprisingly unscripted. Faith leaders seem to be speaking their minds, even when their beliefs clash with Barack Obama’s or the party’s views. So, at the Interfaith Service that opened the convention, Bishop Charles Blake pointedly declared that he was a “pro-life Democrat” who hopes and expects the party will move toward reducing the number of abortions.
“Surely we cannot be pleased with the routine administration of millions of surgically terminated pregnancies. Something within all of us must be calling for a better way. If we do not resist at this point, at what point will we resist?’ he said.
At another event, sponsored by the Democratic Party itself, Tim Roemer, one of the leading anti-abortion Democrats called for the U.S. to reduce the number of abortions by 95% in 10 years. Meanwhile Bishop Wilfredo DeJesus talked openly about the need to “stand by all God’s children including the undocumented.” – i.e. “illegal aliens.” Not exactly the message the Democratic Party leadership wants to emphasize.
There’s been some talk about the need to use faith language in the campaign but most of the speeches have been about what policies religious progressive should favor. At the faith caucus event Tuesday, officially titled the “Faith In Action Panel,” the DNC signage was “Pro Family, Pro Obama.” The panelists focused on the plight of the poor and working poor, emphasizing these particular issues:
Faith Based Initiative — Remarkably, one of the key speakers was John DiIulio, who was the first head of George W. Bush ‘s faith-based initiative. He said he was “exceedingly encouraged” by Obama’s advocacy for government aid to faith-based programs, that his vision was “extraordinary,” and his plan pragmatic. He did not balk at Obama’s insistence that programs not use federal dollars to prosylitise. “I have three responses: amen, amen and amen.” David Sapperstein, director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He reviewed a series of concerns about funding faith-based programs but seemed satisfied that Obama, with his experience as a constitutional law professor, would be sufficiently attentive to church-state concerns. In other words, if President Richard Nixon could go to China, Obama may be able to help civil libertarians get comfortable with a faith-based initiative.
Immigration — Conservative immigration policies are antifamily, argued Bishop DeJesus. By deporting undocumented workers, the government splits parents from their U.S. citizen children. “These are broken homes created by our own government,” he said.
Education — Typical of how the speakers tied policy to scripture was this from Rabbi Jack Moline: “The Talmud debates which is more important study or action. The answer from 2000 years ago was that study was more important because it leads to action. Knowledge and action moves us forward. Action alone just moves us around.”
Prisoner Re-Entry — Rev. John Hunter of the First A.M.E. Church of Los Angeles focused on the need to do a better job reintegrating former prisoners into society. Again, helping felons get jobs is not tops on the list of Democratic Party talking points.
Abortion — Tim Roemer offered a novel attack on Republicans. “The Republican policy has been to attack, to argue, and to not do anything about reducing the number of abortions,” Roemer said. “They want to use it as a wedge issue to drive campaigns and raise money not to help save lives and reduce abortions.”
Think about that: a Democrat at an official party event complaining that the real problem with the Republicans is that they don’t reduce abortion enough. Notably, he was followed Susan Brooks Thistlewaite, of Chicago Theological Seminary, a strong pro-choice advocate, who said she had no problem at all with the drive to reduce abortions as long as the procedure remained legal.
Flying in from the left, she said many women get abortions because they don’t have health care or the income to support a child. “What kind of choice is it if you have if you have no pre- or post-natal health care? What kind of a choice can you make?”
All in all, progressive faith leaders of various stripes are, to use a religious term, feeling full of beans. “In the past, faith leaders were afraid that if you said the wrong thing they wouldn’t invite you back again,” says the Rev. Ron Steif, director of Organizing Strategy for Faith in Public Policy, another progressive faith-based group. “If we speak out now, no one is going to say, ‘No more faith leaders!’ There’s too many of us now.”
Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal Online
UPDATE: Rabbi Michael Lerner was less impressed by the behavior of religious leaders at the convention.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus