Each day, during the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, our two guest bloggers will be offering insight and reporting from the convention floor. First up is author and Columbia University professor Farah Jasmine Griffin. Here, she writes about the "jarring but not surprising" aspects of yesterday's interfaith worship service.
This will be a convention of firsts: it will showcase the New Democratic Party — one led by the first African American, Barack Obama, to receive the nomination of a major party. And yet, we know it is a convention that will be marked by tension as well, particularly the tensions and challenges brought by those who supported his fiercest rival, Senator Hillary Clinton, ironically, who is the first woman to have been a serious contender for the office of President of the United States.
Sunday saw the first official activity of the Convention, the Faith in Action Interfaith worship service, conceived of and hosted by Leah D. Daughtry, CEO of the 2008 Democratic National Convention, herself a Pentecostal minister. This event was scripted to demonstrate unity in diversity. It was the first such faith event to be held at a Democratic Convention, a kind of culmination of the party's recent efforts to win over and welcome people of faith. There are millions of religious people who vehemently disagree with the religious right on economic issues, the war and the environment (though many do share with the Right convictions against a woman's right to choose and homosexuality). The forum provided a platform for airing some of these countering views.
It was jarring but not surprising that a few anti-choice protestors sought to disrupt the service. What was surprising was when one of the most effective and compelling speakers pronounced from the podium that he is a dedicated pro-life Democrat. Bishop Charles Blake is the Presiding Bishop of the Church of God in Christ, one of the largest and most powerful Pentecostal denominations. In one powerful gesture, he both proclaimed his opposition to a major part of the Democratic Party Platform (choice), while at the same time launching a scathing critique of the Religious Right's disregard for the lives of children already born who live in poverty and hunger today.
Sister Helen Prejean, anti-death penalty activist and author of Dead Man Walking, was perhaps the most powerful and passionate of the speakers. She urged us to consider the dignity of those we send to death row; linked our disregard for their lives to our nation's disregard for the rights of poor people and people of color; and made a connection between our practice of state sanctioned murder and our willingness to turn a blind eye to state sanctioned torture against our enemies. Hers was also a pro-life stance, guided by a vision of her faith not shared by the religious right.
There was Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb — who advocates educational vouchers — and Dr. Ingrid Mattson, President of the Islamic Society of North America, who spoke of Muslim Patriotism and acknowledged the role of Christians and Jews in helping to ensure the Muslim Civil Liberties in the wake of intense scrutiny and harassment faced by Muslims since 9/11.
Though the service was ecumenical, it was largely focused on the three Abrahamic faiths. There was one Buddhist reading by a student, Kathryn Ida. Although the speakers represented a diversity of faiths, the service itself seemed largely Christian because of the musical selections and the exuberant shouts of "Amen!" from the audience. Nonetheless, it successfully showcased the religious diversity of the party, articulated a common vision of justice and equality and painted a portrait of the party as a place welcoming of religious people.
However, left unspoken were the challenges that this new direction will pose for a party that has long supported the right of women to choose what happens to our bodies by opposing state intervention in this most personal matter. Also left unspoken were the rights of gay people who have found the party a place welcoming of them and supportive of many, if not all, of their legal and civil rights. Although this latter issue was not raised yesterday, it is surely yet another point of difference and tension between Democrats at this convention and in the future.