Religious themes have been more likely to take center stage at recent Republican National Conventions than at Democratic gatherings. But politics and religion will be mingling all this week when Democrats convene in Denver to choose Barack Obama as their presidential nominee.
Spurred by a presidential candidate who freely talks about his religious beliefs, Democrats will go to great lengths to display their own religious fervor. Obama's selection of Joe Biden as his running mate probably enhances the theme. Biden made a point of talking about his Irish-Catholic roots in Saturday's joint appearance with Obama.
For the first time ever, Democrats have planned "faith caucus meetings" led by an array of religious and spiritual leaders, including Christians, Muslims and Jews. Democrats want to convince voters that they are putting their faith in action — and show that Republicans haven't cornered the market on family values or faith.
"Everybody woke up after the last election and realized the Democratic Party had not done well dealing with religious voters," says Steven Waldman, founder of the online spiritual center beliefnet.com.
Democrats have occasionally struggled to adopt religious themes when they gathered every four years. Part of the reason may be that a mix of Protestants, Catholics, Jews and non-believers were trying to co-exist under one roof. They found the best way to do that was to move religion to the side. The GOP, by contrast, was — until relatively recently — predominantly Protestant.
"Republicans were able to use religion more effectively," says Jim Wallis, founder of faith-based Sojourners magazine.
Obama Tries To Turn The Tide
Barack Obama hopes to overturn that perception, says Wallis, who will be leading faith caucus meetings at the convention. Evangelical voters could be essential to a presidential victory — by either candidate — in November.
The agenda of the religious community has changed, Wallis says. As recently as two years ago, many religious Americans were focused only on issues such as gay marriage and abortion.
The new generation of religious citizens "has a wider, deeper agenda that includes poverty, protecting the environment or 'creation care', war and peace, human trafficking and Darfur, for instance," he says.
This convention will try to juggle all of these concerns. "I believe in separation of church and state, and so does Barack Obama," says Wallis. "But that doesn't mean segregation of moral values from public life or the banishing of religious language from the public square. Dr. [Martin Luther] King invoked the prophets Jeremiah, Isaiah and Jesus. He spoke with a Bible in one hand and the constitution in the other."
Religion On Display
Each evening of the convention will be punctuated by an invocation and a benediction by religious leaders, including a rabbi from Washington, D.C., a Catholic nun from Ohio and a Greek Orthodox archbishop from New York. There will be other faith-based panels, too, geared toward spiritual discussion. One is titled "Faith in 2009: How an Obama Administration will Engage People of Faith."
Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter spoke at an interfaith service on Sunday. The convention CEO, Leah D. Daughtry, is a preacher.
Convention material does not shy away from religion. "Senator Obama is a committed Christian, and he believes that people of all faiths have an important place in American life," Obama's director of religious affairs Joshua DuBois said in a statement. "We are honored that so many religious leaders are reaching across partisan and ideological lines in this convention to address the values that matter to Americans."
Obama has put religion on the frontburner of his campaign. "Some of his campaign literature makes George W. Bush look like a member of the ACLU," Waldman says. "There is a lot of alienation among evangelicals in the Republican Party. People are more open to looking at Obama."
Seeking Common Ground On Abortion
Democrats who favor abortion rights are even looking for ways to compromise with voters who are against abortion, such as stressing an agenda to limit abortions through birth control education, health care for new mothers and aid in facilitating adoption. "Some people in the Obama campaign are taking the views of pro-lifers seriously," Waldman says. "Whether it's because of conscience or electoral necessity, they are doing something."
To that end, the Democrats have invited Evangelical pastor Joel C. Hunter, an abortion opponent and registered Republican from Florida, to deliver the benediction on the all-important Thursday night when Obama accepts the presidential nomination. Hunter says unequivocally that life begins at conception and he opposes abortion, but he challenges Democrats and Republicans to deal with the root issues of unwanted children, such as reducing poverty.
Cynthia Hale, an Evangelical pastor from Decatur, Ga., is scheduled to give the invocation on Wednesday. "I'm excited about the marriage between religion and politics," Hale says. "We need to make sure we put faith in action. We need to stay focused on the needs of people, particularly the least of these. Our faith as Christians calls us to."
She says she wishes she could also address Republicans at their convention in St. Paul next week.
Wallis will be there, running interfaith forums — similar to the Democratic ones. "In the Twin Cities," he says, "I'll be focusing on the issues: Iraq, poverty, the environment, the sanctity of life."
He adds, "I think the gospel is political. Its implications are public. It can't be partisan."