Denver — Just a few minutes into the Democratic National Convention’s opening interfaith worship service, the abortion issue took center stage. Literally.
As a mixed-race choir wearing kente cloth sang a spiritual song, a man rose from the front of the half-full Wells Fargo Theater at the Denver Convention Center and said, repeatedly, “Obama supports the murder of children by abortion.”
After police escorted him out of the venue, another protester rose. Then another. The religiously diverse crowd was not pleased, booing each. The stunt was rude, to be sure, but that wasn’t the only reason it made the attendees uncomfortable: When one of the keynote speakers announced he was pro-life, you could have heard a pin drop.
Bishop Charles E. Blake, presiding prelate of the Church of God in Christ, spoke of “the moral and spiritual pain” felt by pro-life Democrats like himself because of the party’s “disregard for the lives of the unborn.”
“Surely we cannot be pleased with the routine administration of millions of surgically terminated pregnancies,” he preached. “Something in us must be calling for a better way. If we do not resist at this point, at what point do we resist?”
It was a positively awkward moment in a service full of, well, preaching the choir. Only when he began denouncing other pro-lifers — accusing them of not caring about poverty or the plight of the inner cities — did the crowd erupt with praise.
Much has been made of Sen. Barack Obama and the Democratic party’s outreach efforts to religious voters. In the weeks leading up to the convention, every major media outlet featured multiple stories about the plans for the interfaith gathering and its organizer, Pentecostal pastor Leah Daughtry.
It’s certainly true that the DNC has a history of being hostile to cultural conservatives, most of whom are religious. The exclusion of former Pennsylvania governor Robert Casey from speaking at the 1992 convention is just one of many examples of pro-lifers being systematically shunned within the party.
And the public has noticed. Five years ago, 42 percent of Americans told Pew pollsters that the Democratic party was religion-friendly. That plummeted to 26 percent in 2006 but rebounded to its current 38 percent. That lags considerably behind the Republican Party, which some 52 percent of Americans said they view as friendly to religious adherents.
The interfaith gathering — and the launch of a new faith caucus during the convention — is part of the larger effort of improving Democrats’ image with religious voters. The message was reinforced by having House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn and Democratic party chairman Howard Dean in the front row. (Yet another protester, this time an atheist who tried to shout down Daughtry when she said Democrats were people of faith, didn’t reinforce the message.)
The mention of abortion was the only surprise of the event, which followed the pattern of most political interfaith gatherings. Interfaith worship services usually follow a Judeo-Christian liturgy but with the insertion of other Scriptures and clergy. So instead of a procession of clergy behind, say, a crucifix, the clergy were led by four Native Americans beating drums.
Rather than a reading from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the New Testament, and a Gospel — as you would hear in a liturgical Christian service — there were readings from the Torah, the Sutra Nipata, the Koran, and more from the Old Testament. No New Testament. It is unsurprising that no reading contained a claim of exclusivity or, for that matter, any claim that adherents of a different religion would disagree with. Rather than using proper names to refer to prophets or deities, clergy tend to overload on pronouns and non-descript names. “Lord,” rather than “Jesus.” “The God of Leviticus” becomes “Holy One of Blessing.”
Huge screens displayed the gathering’s logo — vaguely reminiscent of Luther’s Rose. The multilayered mandala incorporated sunbursts and geometric shapes. Throughout the liturgy, the layers were unpeeled to show a candle, a dove, the Statue of Liberty, and the earth.
Even though Daughtry’s father is a noted black-liberation theologian, it was white Roman Catholic nun Sister Helen Prejean (of Dead Man Walking fame) who fired up the crowd with her allegation that the practice of the death penalty “reveals the soul of America” as “racism, the assault on poor people, and readiness to use violence to solve social problems.”
She said that only white deaths cause outrage in the United States and tied the practice of the death penalty to a general desensitization toward killing and torture. She cited Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Iraq, and Afghanistan in her litany of American tragedies. She hoped that $800 billion in defense spending would be reallocated to affordable housing, health care, global warming control, and jobs. Sister Prejean was one exception to the vague pronoun rule. She invoked Jesus’s name repeatedly, including once when she wondered whether the Biblical account of Jesus’s crucifixion was a “projection of our violent society.”
Though the congregation strongly applauded and gave standing ovations throughout her keynote address, there was momentary silence when she challenged them about the Christian account that God allowed his son to be sacrificed for the sins of humanity. “Is this a God or is this an ogre?”
Perhaps the loudest applause came when she suggested Americans follow Australia’s example of apologizing to Aborigines, by apologizing to Native Americans for stealing their land. The congregation went wild; all the more notable for the smattering of support Bishop Blake received when he said that some Democrats have philosophical, theological, and humanitarian objections to abortion.
Will the interfaith gathering help more religious voters feel comfortable with the Democratic party? Only time will tell. It’s somewhat difficult to imagine which religious voters would be swayed by a worship service with such liberal political advocacy. One thing’s for sure — despite the media hype to the contrary, religious outreach efforts up to this point have failed to yield any movement in the polls.
The overall religious contours of the campaign are little changed from 2004. For instance, 24 percent of white Evangelicals supported Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry in August 2004. This August, the same percentage support Obama. Some 68 percent of white Evangelicals support Republican nominee Sen. John McCain. That’s down only three points from Bush’s support in 2004. And it’s nine points more than Bush had in September 2000.
In her welcome, Daughtry said, “We didn’t need to bring faith to the party. Faith was already here.” Indeed, this newfound approach embraces the faithful who already are a part of the party. Whether others, particularly cultural conservative believers, will feel welcome is another matter.
— M. Z. Hemingway is a writer in Washington.