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2008 Campaign: Religion at the DNC

FRED DE SAM LAZARO, guest anchor: As the Republicans gather in St Paul to choose their presidential tickets, Democrats wrapped up their convention. They officially chose Barack Obama and Joe Biden as their nominees. Religion, in various demonstrations and observances, was prominently on display in Denver, as Kim Lawton reports.

KIM LAWTON: The 2008 Democratic National Convention began as no previous convention ever has — with a prayer and worship service. The first official event here in Denver was an interfaith gathering attended by more than 3,000 people. The gathering was hosted by the chief executive officer of the convention, Leah Daughtry, who’s also a Pentecostal pastor.

LEAH DAUGHTRY (CEO, Democratic National Convention, speaking at interfaith gathering): Today is a celebration of our faith and our values.

LAWTON: Representatives of several religious traditions talked about moral issues facing the nation and prayed for the delegates meeting here.

RELIGIOUS LEADERS (praying together): God, we pray that you guide our leaders…

LAWTON: One of the participants was Roman Catholic Sister Helen Prejean, a well-known death penalty opponent.

Democrats in Denver

Sister HELEN PREJEAN, CSJ (Author, “Dead Man Walking”): Just to have Muslims and to have the rabbi and to have the sacred Scriptures read, it was a beautiful thing to do. And you watch, it’s going to be a template, it’s going to be imitated because it’s so important.

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: But when it comes to religion, the Democratic Party still has some major challenges to overcome.

LAWTON: According to a new survey from the Pew Research Center, only 38 percent of Americans think the Democratic Party is friendly toward religion. That compares to more than half of all Americans who think the Republican Party is friendly toward religion. Democratic leaders hope the prominent role of faith at this convention will change those perceptions.

The Democrats incorporated faith on many fronts here. As is the tradition for both political parties, various religious leaders opened and closed every floor session with prayer. Faith-based groups were part of a service day where delegates were encouraged to do volunteer work. Some delegates helped out at a feeding program at Trinity United Methodist Church. Kathy West, a United Methodist delegate from Illinois, was one of them.

KATHY WEST (Illinois Delegate): We’re the party closest to the people, in my opinion. That’s one of the reasons I am a Democrat.

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: The National Jewish Democratic Council held a reception for Jewish members of Congress. Many here praised the inclusiveness of the party’s faith outreach efforts. They also admitted that a negative email campaign falsely asserting that Barack Obama is an anti-Israel Muslim has made inroads among some American Jews.

Ira Forman

IRA FORMAN (Executive Director, National Jewish Democratic Council): Our opponents have done a lot to try and make people fear an Obama presidency, and I think that’s destructive to the Israel-U.S. relationship and unfair — “smear and fear,” we call it — and I think that’s a big thing that we’re going to be working at as an organization to get out to the Jewish community.

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

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.

LAWTON: At the same time, the Democrats had to be careful not to alienate secular voters who make up a significant part of party’s base. And the party also tried to walk a fine line on the thorny issue of abortion. Both the interfaith gathering and the faith caucus meetings were interrupted by anti-abortion protesters who had to be escorted out of the building.

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

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.

LAWTON: Chaput wasn’t invited to be an official part of the Democratic Convention. Instead, on the convention’s opening night, he led a rally in front of a local Planned Parenthood office.

Archbishop CHAPUT: It wasn’t a march against the Democratic Party, but it was a march to remind all of us whether we’re Independents or always vote Democratic that the life issue is the central issue of our day.

LAWTON: Chaput believes that pro-choice Roman Catholic politicians should not receive Communion, and that would include vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Archbishop CHAPUT: Already it’s been very clear from his own public statements that he is pro-choice, and that would separate him from the Communion of the church in terms of what we believe about life, and so that’s an issue for him to take seriously. He really should change his mind if he says he’s a Catholic. He should believe what the Catholic Church believes.

LAWTON: Inside the convention Joe Turnham, who opposes abortion, argued for a more consistent life ethic that would include issues like poverty and the war. He believes Democrats have the advantage over Republicans on that front.

Mr. TURNHAM: I think this is the pro-life party because Christ said, “I came to give you life and to give you life more abundantly.” They talk about being the pro-life party. This is the party of having life and having it more abundantly. And that’s, you know, that’s from the womb to the grave.

LAWTON: For many here, Obama’s nomination for president took on special meaning because his acceptance speech occurred on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Sen. BARACK OBAMA (during acceptance speech, Democratic National Convention): …in the words of Scripture “Hold firmly without wavering to the hope that we confess.” Thank you. God bless you and God bless the United States of America.

Rev. Otis Moss Jr.

Rev. OTIS MOSS JR. (Olivet Institutional Baptist Church, Cleveland, OH): Dr. King said, “I have a dream that one day my four little children will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” This is the hour that America can live up to that dream.

LAWTON: Reverend Otis Moss, Jr. was a close associate of the King family. He says Obama is inspiring a new generation of clergy across racial lines who are motivated by their values to work for social change.

Rev. MOSS: The enthusiasm is so high that it’s incalculable. It’s measureless. There is a special kind of hope deeply rooted in our faith tradition and in our history.

LAWTON: Democratic leaders hope that new faith-based enthusiasm will help propel them to victory in November. I’m Kim Lawton in Denver.