“All Rejoice Together”: An Interview with the Head of the DNC Faith Office

Faithful Democrats did an interview with, Rev. Derrick Harkins, Director for Faith Outreach for the Democratic National Committee.  Read what he has to say about the challenges of being a person of faith in politics, the opportunities facing Democrats with religious communities, and more.


On The Campaign Trail

An Interview with Rev. Derrick Harkins 

1.  How does your faith inform your values and political engagement?

I really think that my faith calls me to be engaged in the public square and to bring my values to bear on that engagement.  I think about justice, compassion , and the greater good.  Those are elements of the Christian faith that are important to me personally, and I believe we are called to bring those values into the world.  A lot of people know the passage where Jesus says,  “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”  It’s a Sunday School greatest hit.  But a lot of times people don’t understand what Jesus is saying.  What he’s really saying there is, “You need to be engaged.”  We must know the distinctions between Caesar and God, but that doesn’t mean we don’t act.  People think that the more religious and pious they are, they more they need to be removed from the public square.  They think that all they need to do is pay taxes and that is it.  But that isn’t what Jesus is saying.  Jesus is telling us we have responsibilities to God and to Caesar and we have to be engaged.

2.  Can Christians engage in politics without compromising their faith?  What do you see as the risks of being involved in politics and how do you handle them?

As Director of Faith Outreach with the Democratic National Committee, I have to understand that what we as Christians are called to is even larger than partisan politics.  There are ideals and goals that we can see embodied in a given party or platform and we can work towards those.  But that’s still very different than saying my faith is identified with any party or person.  We need to understand that distinction.  We can still be very robust in being engaged in the political realm as long as we realize that’s not the ultimate realm.

One of the big risks to this engagement is that we can compromise our faith when we allow it to be used to political ends.  Political involvement should be informed by our faith, not the other way around.  I’m not a Christian because I am a Democrat.  Personally, I’m a Democrat because I am a Christian.  As a Christian, I believe in being concerned about the poor, and promoting the common good.  And I believe our party when we say that those are values that are important to us.  I feel that the ideals espoused in our party align with my faith.  I won’t disparage someone who has a different outlook, but I’ll stand firmly in the values that I believe are important to the Christian faith and the ways I see those values reflected in my party.

3.  What has been one of your favorite moments working in the DNC Faith Office?

Wow, there are so many.  But you know, speaking generally, they are always when I’m out among voters and when I’m traveling across the country.  Amazing things happen on those trips.  I get to see people realize that we as Democrats are really committed to engaging with people of faith.  I get to be there when they discover that the Democratic party is in large measure comprised of people of faith.  And it’s wonderful when people are able to see that and grasp it.

A more specific favorite moment would be from the convention in Charlotte.  We had a truly wonderful convention and it was made up of more faith events than ever before.  Every day began with a time of prayer and reflection.  There were also two large faith panels and groups.  The entire time I was down there, I couldn’t walk up the street without encountering people who attended one of these events.  They were so appreciative that that was part of our convention agenda.  I could see that having that engagement of faith at the convention encouraged and inspired them to go back and do what we need to get done in the weeks we have left.  It was so rewarding to hear that appreciation and see what those events meant to people.

4.  What opportunities do you see for Democrats in engaging religious communities?  What are some challenges you see to this work?

Faith communities have always been points of engagement with the broader community.  The times when we have authentically engaged with communities have most often been when we’ve built a relationship with the faith institutions in those communities.  This isn’t just true in Black or Hispanic communities; it’s broadly true.  That engagement shows we’re willing to commit.  Often times local communities are the places where things get done, so it’s important for us to be there.  It’s not just about voter turnout.  It’s when we’re in communities that we get an accurate idea of the concerns and challenges they are facing.  I’m able to speak more accurately in my travels because I’ve gotten to know pastors and communities and learned from them.  That kind of relationship building and knowledge is critical, not just for November but in going forward.

A major challenge to this work and type of engagement is to make sure we always respect and understand the specific and unique needs of faith communities.  They all want to engage the political conversation in different ways and it’s important that we’re sensitive to that.  This is something that we’re already doing in our outreach, but it’s important that we always remember these difference and treat them with care.

5.  If you could recommend just one passage of Scripture for Christians to use for reflection on how to approach this election, what would it be and why?

There’s a passage that we’ve been talking about a lot because there is so much truth that hangs on it.  The passage is 1 Corinthians 12:26:  “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”  That means we’re greater together; we are our brother’s and sister’s keeper.  We can do so much if we work together, united in the larger purposes that make us a great nation.  That is so distinct.  It’s a little disheartening when you hear people try to pull us in an opposite direction.  We need to do things together.  We all have individual liberties and rights, but we are at our best when we have a common purpose.  That’s where the President wants to lead us.  I was so upset by the snarkiness I saw coming out of Tampa and continuing after.  The idea that anyone would belittle what we can do together as a nation is sad.  We don’t do things by ourselves; we don’t build it by ourselves.  I’m glad it’s not just me saying this.  This truth comes from a text far more important than anything I could say.  The 1 Corinthians passage is indicative of our values as a party, but also of the values that we as a nation should hold.

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  • ToronadoBlue

    -” I think about justice, compassion , and the greater good. ”

    I wonder if he thinks about justice and compassion for the unborn?

    • Eric Sapp

      Considering that he is “pro-life,” I think he does. In fact, rather than just feeling self-righteous about claiming to care about the unborn but doing nothing, he’s actually acting to save them. And why is that the answer to everything? “We should help the poor.” “Abortion!” “We should make the world a safer place” “Abortion!” “We should end torture.” “Abortion!”

      Giving lip service to protecting the unborn doesn’t free one from Christ’s commands to care for the poor and needy. Picking at a speck in our neighbor’s eye will never really relieve the discomfort caused by the 2x4s we’re carrying around.

      If you want to help the unborn, vote for the Party that actually saves lives: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithfuldemocrats/2012/09/if-you-are-truly-pro-life-youd-vote-democrat/

      But mostly, listen to what he says before you try to come up with an excuse, especially a false one in this case, to dismiss him.

      • ToronadoBlue

        Eric, as soon as you get that 2×4 out of your eye let me know.
        I’m going to vote for the party that wants to make the killing of the innocent unborn illegal as it should be. Being prolife and voting Dem is like being a jew voting for Hitler.

        As for the claim about doing nothing for the unborn… you are wrong, I’m in the middle of the process of adopting and it is something I’ve been encouraging others to do. I’ve also done what I’ve could in encouraging pregnant teens that I come across in my work to allow their child to be adopted.

        • Frank

          Exactly! It is disingenuous, hypocritical and antithetical to Christ to not do whatever you can to protect the unborn. Voting for a party that supports abortion is not possible if we follow Christ.

    • Sundown

      Oh great, another One-Issue Voter.

      • ToronadoBlue

        Oh great, another ‘witty’ response.

    • Rachel Johnson

      Following up on Eric’s comments, how is it that sanctity of life has been reduced to one issue? Making abortion the only important life issue strongly implies that a life’s value ends at birth. I don’t think Christians are allowed to be single-issue voters, but even if you believe that the sanctity of life must trump everything else, why is it that only applies to abortion? What about war? What about combating malaria, which is claiming 665,000 lives annually, most of those children? What about healthcare? Why aren’t these life issues just as important in determining which candidate or party we vote for?

      • Frank

        We should care about all those issues. But we should first protect those that cannot on any level protect themselves and have made no choices in life themselves. They are the true innocent and powerless. If we cannot stand up for them then we are hypocrites if we stand up for the already born and have a different agenda than simply protecting life.

        The Dems have abortion on demand in their platform for Gods sake!

        • Rachel Johnson

          If we’re talking about protecting the innocent first, that still doesn’t address the fact that in any war there are always innocent victims, people who have done absolutely nothing to bring about the violent conflict, who are powerless to stop it, and who cannot remove themselves from danger. The same is true for children dying of preventable illnesses. There are more “true innocent and powerless” lives than only the unborn.

          But I also take exception to that argument on a more fundamental level. Emphasizing a person’s innocence with regard to the sanctity of life comes perilously close to saying some lives have greater worth than others, and that, I believe, is theologically unsustainable. First, Scripture makes it clear that every life is marked by the image of God, and therefore is imbued with worth that cannot be stripped away, no matter how sinful a person is. Even John Calvin’s theology of total depravity asserts this inalienable value – he calls it a natural nobility. And Christ never said “whatever you do for the innocent who are in prison, the people who are hungry who no fault of their own etc etc, you do for me.” He didn’t place any qualifications on a person’s innocence or guilt when he commanded us to treat every person as we would treat him. Secondly, it is a fundamental tenant of the Christian faith that our value is not something we can earn. There is such a thing as personal responsibility, absolutely, but we don’t get to start weighing “degrees of innocence” when talking about the sanctity of life. It’s a hard theological statement, to be sure, with difficult implications, but one life isn’t “more sacred” than another.

          • ToronadoBlue

            Generally when dealing with a democrat and you bring up abortion, they will not address directly abortion and will seek to change the topic to war or something. So I’ll address the war part. I hate war and I don’t know anyone who wants war for the sake of having a war. I personally am a contentious objector, but can have some understanding if war is conducted for the purpose of self defense or if by doing so saves lives. When Republicans were all over Clinton for bombing Serbs in Bosnia and then later in Kosovo, I sided with the democrats because I was familiar with the situation and felt the actions were saving lives. Oh yes, democrats believe in wars and bombing too… more recently in Libya and Obama’s war of necessity in Afghanistan. Maybe you conveniently forgot that… and ooh, all those drone strikes.
            And your point about life being sacred and about one shouldn’t be considered more sacred than another… that’s an interesting observation. One point for you. But remember, all those lives that are snuffed out before getting their human right of breathing fresh air are sacred too.
            Soo, I dealt directly with your ‘war’ analogy which was nothing more than chaff to confuse the issue… lets get back to abortion.
            I am pointing my finger at you… directly at you. With the anger that Jesus had when he chased out the money lenders, I am pointing my finger in your face, punching back twice as hard, speaking truth to power, if you support a party that cannot stand up for these innocent and sacred lives, then YOU are not in our Father’s house.
            I dare you to deny that unborn lives are innocent!
            I dare you to deny that unborn lives are sacred!
            I dare you to deny that snuffing out these lives is murder!
            I know right now you are scrambling your mind trying to come up with some witty retort… but just seethe in your shame for a while until you realize that those innocent lives deserve a chance at life.

          • Frank

            If you believe that then how can you support anyone who supports abortion? If all life is sacred then we should be protecting it. Are you a hypocrite?

            And you are incorrect that all people killed in war are innocent. None of us are innocent. Except the unborn.

            So keep making excuses on supporting people who support killing unborn children on demand.

  • Rachel Johnson

    @ToronadoBlue, I’m happy to continue this conversation without histrionics because you touch on some points that I think are worth exploring. You’re absolutely correct that Democrats support military intervention in certain circumstances and have engaged in wars that have resulted in innocent lives being lost. I never made an argument to the contrary. This is a good illustration of how neither party perfectly embodies the values Christians may hold. For people who are conscientious objectors, such as yourself, or pacifists, both the Republicans and the Democrats fall short of Christ’s command to be peacemakers. So recognizing that the choice is imperfect, you have to weigh which party’s policies still have the potential to do some good, or at least the least amount of harm. Look at results, not rhetoric, which is exactly what Eric was getting to above when it comes to abortion. The choices are a party that includes a narrowly defined pro-life stance in its platform (narrow because it doesn’t address how many other issues are also life issues), but hasn’t done anything substantive to reduce abortion in this country or a party that is pro-choice, but whose policies have been proven to result in fewer abortions.

    The war analogy isn’t a “chaff” to avoid talking about abortion. I was trying to have a conversation about what it means to have a “pro-life” ethic and how this extends beyond the unborn. As Christians, unless we oppose every single instance in which the life of one person is taken by another, it means there are instances in which we believe that the loss of life is tragic, but unavoidable. You said as much when you said you supported intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo. That’s the conversation we need to be having, if taking a life is ever justifiable, when is it? When is it not? And who gets to decide? Is it always the government that gets to make that call?

    So no, I don’t think talking about war is a distraction, but throwing up the abortion issue every time a Democrat talks about values is. It’s a tactic that disregards the fact that politics is an exercise in imperfect choices. It reduces critical discussions about values and public policy to a yes or no referendum on whether a candidate or party says it is pro-life or pro-choice, nevermind whether they actually do anything about the issue of abortion, and nevermind any number of the other commands Christ gave to us. Politics is an exercise in the imperfect, the result of a fallen and sinful world. And so we take all of our values into that arena, recognizing that they will never fully be realized this side of the kingdom of God, and make the best choices we can to do the most amount of good.

    • Frank

      What kind of morality places protecting the most innocent as a secondary or side issue? No thanks you can keep it because it certainly is not connected to the morality and ethics of a Christ follower.

      Keep making excuses!

    • ToronadoBlue

      You are still trying to confuse the issue.
      Is it ever justified to legalize child prostitution or vote for a party that wants to keep it legal?
      Is it ever justified to legalize slavery based on race, or vote for a party that wants to keep it legal?
      For a Christian, is it ever justified to make the worship of Zeus mandatory for all, and vote for a party that wants to ban Christianity?
      Is it ever justified in legalizing child murder, or vote for a party that wants to keep it legal?

      Once you understand it in these terms, then the choice is clear,… that is if you can ever get beyond your love of Marxism and your hatred of Republicans.

  • Dan

    Wow, and awesome dialog. I couldn’t be more pro life and Frank and ToronadoBlue said it perfect. Thank you.
    Im left speechless.