The final Faith in Action panel at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) on Thursday in Denver addressed the engagement of religious communities in religious outreach and the relationship between faith and politics. Touching on how a presidential candidate should speak about religion, the panelists addressed topics such as changing political attitudes in younger evangelical Christians and the place of pro-life Democrats in the party.
Rev. Romal Tune, from Clergy Strategic Alliances, discussed the limits of religious freedom and political criticism before the audience gathered in a ballroom at the Colorado Convention Center. He said a pastor’s “number one priority” is to protect his sheep. While parishioners might appreciate it if a pastor starts talking about candidates, Tune said, “they wouldn’t appreciate it if the IRS shows up.”
He encouraged churches to engage in legal political action, such as encouraging voter registration and ensuring parishioners have proper identification for voting.
Like many Faith in Action panelists, Rev. Tune tried to claim the language of morality for the Democrats.
“Most of what we care about are moral values,” he said, recounting with disbelief how he had once read a Family Research Council pamphlet that didn’t mention poverty among its moral issues.
Rev. C. Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance addressed the relation between faith and politics, stating that the president is “not a religious leader, but the commander-in-chief.” The president must serve people of many faiths or no faith, and those who differ from the president “shouldn’t feel left out.”
While insisting that Democrats are not “stuffy legalists wishing to eliminate religious language,” Rev. Gaddy said, winning an election is “not as important as preserving the Constitution.”
Saying that a president should respect people of all religions, he said that if a candidate speaks about faith he must let voters know how that faith will impact his administration.
However, Rev. Gaddy insisted, the president must put forward a “secular vision that embraces all Americans” and even “resign the office of the presidency rather than press religion in office.”
Outreach to African-American Christian women was discussed by Rev. Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner from the Skinner Leadership Institute.
She began her comments by asking the audience to join her in prayer, after which she said people must learn to “share each other’s burdens.”
She noted that ten million African-American unmarried women were not voting. Describing many of these women as “strongly churched,” like herself, Rev. Williams-Skinner called for the inclusion of morally conservative religious people in the Democratic Party.
“I am a pro-life Democrat, and I like to think there is room for me in this party,” she said, receiving scattered applause. She argued that African-Americans care about the “sanctity of life” and the “sanctity of marriage,” adding “and they want to be in this party!”
Saying Obama should be applauded for wanting to reduce the number of abortions, she exhorted pro-life Democrats to “stand next to our pro-choice sisters” in political engagement.
Cameron Strang, who is editor of the Relevant magazine targeted at young evangelical Christians, described the attitudes he found among young evangelical Christians, saying as many as ten million don’t feel they fit the “mold of the church,” as traditionally understood, but still have faith and are moral conservatives.
Characterizing these evangelicals as “more socially aware,” he said this segment of voters offers an opportunity for both political parties. Characterizing young evangelicals as “pro-life,” he claimed they have a more “holistic” view of what being pro-life means.
Obama’s promise to reduce the numbers of abortions could appeal to this segment, Strang thought, adding that political action must consider the situation that would result were the Supreme Court to permit restrictive abortion laws again.
“Let’s say the Republican Party overturns Roe v. Wade. What then?” he asked.
Strang proposed a reform of adoption laws and a review of the financial expense involved in an adoption.
“An abortion costs $500, while an adoption costs $25,000. That’s absurd.”
In the question and answer period of the panel Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlewaite, a professor at Chicago Theological Seminary who sat on Tuesday’s Faith in Action panel, asked how to address the concerns of “principled secularists” who were skeptical of the Democrats’ newfound openness towards religion. She asked how the Democratic Party could be kept together as the “Faith Caucus” grows.
“It’s a sad commentary that religion is such a scary word,” Rev. Gaddy answered, blaming people who abuse religion and don’t respect those who disagree for secularists’ negative attitudes.
However, Rev. Gaddy added that the Faith Caucus shows that the Democratic National Convention is “a place where it is appropriate to struggle with how faith fits together with politics.”