Religious outreach, DNC style

partyfaithfulI’m here in St. Paul, and still processing everything from last night. I was pretty sure there was no way that the Republican National Convention could come even close to the excitement of the Democratic National Convention but last night was truly amazing. We’ll be sure to cover the coverage of the religious angles — although it’s funny that most of the fodder for religion news seemed to come from Rudy Guiliani, of all people.

The interesting thing about the difference between the two conventions was that you couldn’t go more than a few minutes in Denver without hearing mention of the party being welcoming to religious adherents. There were prominent invocations and benedictions, the interfaith gathering, the faith caucuses (caucii?). Here, every mention of religion I’ve heard has been so different. Obama’s “clinging to religion” comments get joked about a lot — but there is no “appeal” being made to religious voters. This is likely because Democrats have a real image problem, although it’s improving, with being seen as “friendly to religion.” It will be interesting to see how the religious outreach will be compared in press reports.

But before we get to that, I wanted to highlight a very comprehensive piece looking at the Democratic convention’s religious angles. Reported by Religion & Ethics’ Kim Lawton, she nailed what religious outreach means to Democrats. Watch it all. Leah Daughtry’s commanding presence is highlighted. She quotes people talking about moral issues facing the nation. She shows the prominent display of religion, beginning with the interfaith gathering:

LAWTON: The gathering was part of a new Democratic strategy to incorporate religion and more aggressively reach out to faith-based voters. Observers say it’s a sea change from 2004, when the Democrats appeared reluctant to address issues of faith.

Reverend ROMAL TUNE (Clergy Strategic Alliances): Four years ago, the party was still gaining momentum in terms of the outreach in the religious community. But now the party is more willing to express its views as people of faith, the diversity of the faiths represented by the Democratic Party.

Lawton notes the polling data that suggest Democratic problems with religious outreach. Only 38 percent of Americans think the Democratic Party is friendly toward religion. But she shows how the efforts are playing out and how they are completely different than the way that Republicans reach out:

LAWTON: In addition, for the first time ever the Democrats created special caucus meetings where people of faith could come together as other affinity groups do. At a series of four separate faith caucus meetings, national religious leaders held panel discussions about key issues. In another first, Muslims organized the American Muslim Democratic Caucus. Fifty-five Muslim caucus members were delegates at this year’s convention. Former Muslim Army chaplain James Yee was a delegate from Washington State. After working in Guantanamo Bay, Yee was detained in 2003 and accused of spying. The charges were later dropped, and now Yee is mobilizing Muslims to get involved in politics.

Chaplain JAMES YEE (Washington Delegate): The values of justice, diversity, equality, religious freedom — these are all values that are not only reflected in our Constitution, but they are also reflected in the teachings of the Qur’an. . . .

LAWTON: Joe Turnham was gratified to see the many expressions of Democratic faith at this convention. Turnham is chair of the Alabama Democratic Party and a lifelong evangelical Christian. He has been deeply frustrated by the Democrats’ recent image on issues of faith.

JOE TURNHAM (Chair, Alabama Democratic Party): Democrats are people that pray. They are people that seek forgiveness. They are people that seek for higher meaning and truth in life and that really do follow scriptural precepts for how we live our lives. And it’s a barometer of how we may govern.

As someone who was there, these quotes resonate perfectly with the tone of the various events. It’s nice to be able to compare a piece against actual events and Lawton nailed it.

The big ghost of the religious outreach efforts was definitely the abortion issue. And not just because of the protests. Nancy Keenan, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, was given a prominent speaking slot whereas Democrats for Life met in a small room blocks away from the convention.

NANCY KEENAN (President, NARAL Pro-Choice America, during speech): I am proud to say that my party, the Democratic Party, is a party of many faiths and backgrounds united behind these core moral values: we support and defend a woman’s right to choose a safe, legal abortion.

LAWTON: The party maintained its strong support for abortion rights. But this year, delegates also approved support for measures to reduce the number of abortions. Denver Roman Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput called the measure a “distraction.”

Archbishop CHARLES CHAPUT (Archdiocese of Denver): The fact that there’s a part of the platform that calls for that doesn’t blind me to the other part of the platform that is unconditionally committed to the right to abortion. So, quite honestly, I’m not impressed by it.

The piece also mentions that it’s a delicate line between reaching out to religious believers and alienating some of the party’s secularists. Clergy and other religious adherents were clearly enthused about the new approach being taken. Lawton managed to present that enthusiasm without overselling what is happening. As we usually say when looking at that fine show, great work.

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  • Jerry

    There were prominent invocations and benedictions, the interfaith gathering”>interfaith service,

    That link is broken.

  • Jerry

    It was a fine show. Although you did not feature the full excerpt from Archbishop Chaput, he was given space to express his opposition to Biden taking communion based on his abortion stance.

    A bit off topic, to be sure, but I was also very impressed by what I thought was a more important story in the long run than the shenanigans of the political parties: the story about the homeless preacher. The ending comment should cause all Christians to think about the state of Christianity in today’s world:

    SEVERSON: He says what he’s doing on the streets is no different from the many stories of personal sacrifice in the Bible, and he can’t understand why people today consider it so unusual.

  • Mollie


    If you watch that show regularly, it rarely fails to be thought-provoking, educational and beautifully comprehensive.

    I love them over there.

  • Mike Perry

    Your remarks about the favorable treatment accorded NARAL as opposed to Democrats for Life points to just how shallow this Democratic “outreach” is. They’re hoping religious people will become like black voters, who’re led about on a leash but given nothing substantial by a party that primarily serves rich, big city elites, the sort of people who think the rest of America is, as Obama put it, filled with bitter people obsessed with guns and God.

    Perhaps the greatest failing of the press in this country is their unwillingness to honestly explore that great culture divide, a divide that the candidacy of Sarah Palin has exposed as a yawning chasm. Religion may be part of that divide, but it’s far more than that. It’s two radically different ways of looking at the world, as H. G. Wells pointed out long ago in the introduction he wrote for Margaret Sanger’s The Pivot of Civilization. And nowhere is that difference more obvious than in attitudes toward reproduction, hence the hostility from so many in the media toward this mother of five from a small town in Alaska. She shouldn’t have so many babies, they are saying, but now that she has, she should stay home and care for them rather than mettle in politics like her betters.

    My faith says that to take someone’s professions of faith seriously, we need to look for a confession of sins.

    At various times over 140 years the Democratic party has been the party that championed the taking of land away from Indians (Andrew Jackson et al), slavery (Stephen Douglas et al), and segregation (LBJ, Al Gore’s dad et al). My first political memory comes from the 1956 elections and seeing a sample ballot carrying the logo of the Alabama Democratic Party, a rooster crowing “White Supremacy for the Right.”

    Throughout our nation’s history, the Democratic party has provided almost all of the organization skills and political ‘muscle’ for our nation’s foulest deeds. Without them, the Indians would have been able to live in peace on their Georgian lands. Without them, slavery in this country would have ended a decade or so after it ended in the British empire. Without them, white supremacy would have never reigned in the South. And to bring matters up to the present, without them, the Supreme Court’s move to legalize abortion would have been cut short in the 1970s.

    We should also never forget that the KKK was an auxiliary of the party in the same sense that NARAL and NOW are today. My great-great-great grandfather was killed by the Klan in 1874, as part of the Democratic party’s plan to retake the South “By Bullets or by Ballots.” The KKK claimed to champion white women and argued that blacks have no rights that whites need respect. NARAL and NOW claim to champion women and argue that unborn children have no rights their mother is bound to respect. The arguments are the same because the party and the mindset is the same. As I tell friends, the basic appeal of the Democratic party is and has always been, “Vote for us and we’ll let you stomp on it.” It being Indians, black people and now babies.

    Has the Democratic party ever confessed their past sins, much less owned up to those of the present? Go the the party’s website and you will find that they have not. For them, all these past evils were done by someone else, not them. Instead, they snobbishly blame their sins on others.

    Never forget that the most evil thing millions of Americans did in support of slavery and racism was to vote for the Democratic party. From that one act, all the other evils flowed. And the same is true today. The most evil thing we can do is vote Democratic. From that one act, the greatest evil in our society, legalized abortion, flows as an inevitable consequence.

    That’s why for me and for millions of other Americans, contempt for the Democratic party comes easily. It’s why it flows naturally from our deepest religious beliefs and aspirations. And that’s also why it’s difficult to take seriously a press that won’t take those beliefs as serious as their moral import demands, a press that assumes that, if the Democratic party offers me a room at their convention, with coffee and doughnuts, they’re conducting an “outreach” for which I should be grateful.

  • Bibliotrope

    Meanwhile, are Republicans who trash-talk their opponents on religious issues getting a free ride? From the media? From GR?

    Patrick Nielsen Hayden, of the blog Making Light has this entry, titled “Slime, and several answers to slime” on comments by Palin and Giuliani in their speeches on Wednesday. It, and I, and the bloggers quoted in the entry, especially found egregious, if not unChristian, Palin’s quip, “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities.”

    Joe Klein quotes in his blog at an e-mail he received from “from a group called Catholic Democrats.”

    Catholic Democrats is expressing surprise and shock that Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech tonight mocked her opponent’s work in the 1980s for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. She belittled Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s experience as a community organizer in Catholic parishes on the South Side of Chicago, work he undertook instead of pursuing a lucrative career on Wall Street. In her acceptance speech, Ms. Palin said, “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities.” Community organizing is at the heart of Catholic Social Teaching to end poverty and promote social justice.

    Klein follows with this:

    So here is what Giuliani and Palin didn’t know: Obama was working for a group of churches that were concerned about their parishioners, many of whom had been laid off when the steel mills closed on the south side of Chicago. They hired Obama to help those stunned people recover and get the services they needed–job training, help with housing and so forth–from the local government. It was, dare I say it, the Lord’s work–the sort of mission Jesus preached (as opposed to the war in Iraq, which Palin described as a “task from God.”)

    This is what Palin and Giuliani were mocking. They were making fun of a young man’s decision “to serve a cause greater than himself,” in the words of John McCain. They were, therefore, mocking one of their candidate’s favorite messages. Obama served the poor for three years, then went to law school. To describe this service–the first thing he did out of college, the sort of service every college-educated American should perform, in some form or other–as anything other than noble is cheap and tawdry and cynical in the extreme.

    Perhaps [Palin] didn’t know this when she read the words they gave her. But Giuliani–a profoundly lapsed Catholic, who must have met more than a few religious folk toiling in the inner cities–should have known. (“I don’t even know what that is,” he sneered.”) What a shameful performance.

    Another blog quoted in the Making Light entry is this one from Christy Hardin Smith at Firedoglake, “GOP Thinks Organizing In Your Community Is Worthless”:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but without community organizers like Martin Luther King, Jr., we’d all still be dealing with separate water fountains for coloreds and Jim Crow Laws. And I mean the old ones, not the new poll tax crap that Hans Von Spakovsky keeps trying to sneak in through the sewers.

    Oh, and ladies? No community organizers means that your voice doesn’t count for shit. No vote for you!

    Lost your job and you need a hand with the utility bills or some food from the local church pantry? Suck it up, America, because the folks who used to extend a hand to those in need don’t count in Republican land. That “do unto others” crap has to stop, and Jesus was clearly just a rabble-rousing, do-gooder. Loaves, fishes, feeding the multitudes? Hogwash.

    Your neighborhood watch program, to help supplement the police force whose budget keeps getting cut under the Bush Administration? Well, you don’t deserve a safe neighborhood and your efforts are useless anyway.

    Cleaning up a local riverbed or a walking trail with your kid’s scout troop? Republicans think you are a loser.

    Working with a job training or literacy program to help folks move from welfare to work? Republicans think your efforts deserve ridicule. Promoting a spay and neuter program at your local animal shelter? Republicans are laughing at you. Volunteer at your church pantry to help the least of these? Republicans are mocking you.

    Country first? Only if you live in Republican country where they come first and the rest of us should take whatever they choose to trickle down on us.

    But Palin is “pro-life” so she’s a good Christian, while people who try to help the already-born aren’t? That seems to be the message of too many on the “right” of our political spectrum. After all, it’s clear from reading the Gospels that preventing abortions was the only issue Jesus ever spoke about, while the poor and sick who were already adults just needed to get over it, right?

    Not right?

    Well, then, to paraphrase a previous commenter on this thread, that’s why for me and for millions of other Americans, contempt for the Republican party comes easily.

  • tmatt

    Well, as for me, I thought Rudy’s speech was terrible. Disgusting, at times.

    So did Rod Dreher:

  • Harris

    On the ground the Democratic Party’s outreach is less a condescension than a matter of pragmatics. Those Democrats who are also faithful (and that is, by most lights a solid majority) also want to win elections. As you move into the Red zones, that’s the profile you need. Period.

    At the same time, the Republican party must wrestle with their own uneasy coalition — it is not clear at all that the populism of the social conservatives and the economic wing of the party can easily fit together, at least not long term.

    This center-hinterland divide runs through both parties.

  • Jay Anderson

    Thanks for deleting my comment. Was it SO out of line compared to the comment to which I was responding? An explanation would have been nice – you have my name and email address.

  • Raider51

    I’m still surprised that there has been almost no coverage of Sr. Prejean calling God an ogre. Just a brief mention by Mollie here and the blog entry.

    Weird. I look forward to the review of the GOP convention by PBS.