Denver — Opening up the Democratic convention, a Muslim imam offered a prayer in the name of “all the Prophets and Messengers of God.” A Reform rabbi invoked the Book of Leviticus’s admonition to be “compassionate neighbors and steadfast friends.”
They were joined by a Buddhist reading from the Sutra Nipata, a Catholic leader, a Methodist choir, three more rabbis, and the presiding bishop and chief apostle of the 6-million member Pentecostal Church of God, who spoke against abortion rights to a crowd of more than 2,000 people who largely support those rights. There were also readings from the Torah and the Quran, and a spirited denunciation of capital punishment by Sister Helen Prejean, leader of a prison ministry and author of the best-selling book “Dead Man Walking,” which offers an eyewitness account of America’s death penalty.
Missing at this first-ever interfaith gathering was the repeated and overt use of sectarian language that has become common at many Republican political events, sometimes alienating Jews and those of other minority religions. As Eric Sapp, a faith consultant advising Democrats, noted, “It wasn’t just ‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.’”
Four years after President Bush was re-elected with about 80% of the evangelical vote, Democrats are trying in their own way to close the so-called “God gap” that has shaped American political alliances. That the convention opened with this type of “faith forum” was an indication of the importance of the cause and the delicacy with which it was treated. Jesus’ name was invoked, of course, mentioned perhaps four times, but so were the names Allah and Hillel. When Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, led the interfaith audience in a “Hebrew amen,” he prompted one of the event’s lighter moments when he added, “Now I feel more at home.”
Whether all Democrats feel more at home remains to be seen. In the most recent presidential election, Republicans enjoyed a 17-percentage point advantage at the polls among voters who go to church at least twice a month. But in 2006, when such Democrats as Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey Jr., and North Carolina Congressman Heath Shuler talked of their faith with great success, polls showed that they gained a small advantage among religious voters.
“People of faith belong in no party’s pocket,” said Reverend Jim Wallis, president and CEO of Sojourners ministries. Wallis is scheduled to speak at faith programs at both major political party conventions
The Obama campaign is certainly counting on being able to reach faith voters. It gave a prominent role in the convention program to a record number of seven rabbis. One of them, David Saperstein, delivered the invocation the night Obama accepted his party nomination. A new “Faith Caucus” held several events that focused on the common good, faith-based initiatives and the role that religion should play in politics.
Democrats, primarily because of their domestic social policies, historically have drawn 60% to 90% of the Jewish vote. That has hovered near 80% since the 1990s, when Republicans embraced the evangelical community and religious language that often made Jews uncomfortable, according to pollsters Anna Greenberg and Mark Mellman.
Instead, Democrats say they are hoping to focus on areas of common values in all faiths — fighting poverty, loving one’s neighbor, justice, equality and caring for the earth — rather than their theological differences.
Jewish communal leaders involved in the process believe that the Democrats’ approach could prove appealing to Jewish Americans, the vast majority of whom have historically supported a separation of church and state.
“The question is, as [Democrats] do this, are they going to talk with nondenominational terms? Are they going to use exclusive language? If so, I think the Jewish community will feel comfortable. If you begin to hear a lot of Christological language and sectarian language, I think the Jewish community will feel uncomfortable with it,” Saperstein said.
The religious leaders involved in the Democrats’ faith programs were not censored, nor where they told what they could say or what language they could use, according to the Democratic National Committee’s Jewish outreach coordinator, Matt Dorf, who was a key organizer of the kick-off interfaith gathering event. But he acknowledged there were discussions among planners about inclusivity and the selection of faith leaders interested in infusing their messages with a more inclusive tone.
“When people see that all of them are being given freedom to speak what’s truth to them and not be told you can come to speak with Democrats only if you put these things aside, it creates a better discussion, it creates a better dialogue,” Sapp said.
This does not sit well with everyone. Advocates of separation of church and state, such as Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman, are troubled by the effort and argue that religion is a private matter that has no place in government or politics.
Other Jewish leaders, such as Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, think that American Jews may be more comfortable with a level of religion in public life than they had been in the past. “All this religious language in the public square was more foreign and more scary. I think we’ve gotten a little used to it,” he said.
In fact, some Jewish leaders view faith and politics as inextricably bound together. “The values that we have as Jews — just as the values of Christians, and Buddhists and Hindus and Muslims have from their own spiritual lives and faith communities — need to be part of this public discussion,” said Jack Moline, the Conservative rabbi of the Agudas Anchim Congregation in Alexandria, Va. “Government and religion need to be separate. Values don’t exist in a vacuum.”
And if ‘God talk’ remains a part of the American political drama, then some Jews, including some who remain skeptical, want a role to play.
“They understand that other religious traditions, particularly certain Christian religious traditions, are going to be well represented, and they would like to see Jewish tradition have a say,” Moline said.