It sounds like the start of a joke: A Jewish rabbi, a Muslim imam, a Catholic and a Buddhist stood up at the Democratic National Convention.
Such a scenario was unthinkable just four years ago. But as Democrats begin their national nominating convention here in Denver, such a scene was not only non-fiction, but representative of the major push by Democrats to embrace faith and religion, and bridge what’s become known as the “God gap,” an issue long ago ceded to the Republican Party.
While the Rev. Leah D. Daughtry, CEO of the Democratic National Convention and a fifth-generation Pentecostal pastor from Washington, D.C., pointedly noted that “We didn’t need to bring faith to the Democratic Party, faith was already here. Democrats are, have been and will continue to be people of faith.” The fact that the “Faith In Action” interfaith gathering was taking place let alone the convention’s first official event says a lot about how far Democrats have come and how far they are going to try to reach out to religious voters.
The 2004 presidential election, in which evangelical and other so-called faith voters proved critical to President Bush’s re-election, and the election of Democrats who embraced religion as they ran for governor, U.S. Senate and Congress in states such as Virginia, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, proved a key turning point for the Democratic Party.
In sharp contrast to the Republican Party, which critics complain has become dominated by evangelicals, Democrats took pains to show they are more inclusive and tolerant of diversity as they try to broaden their coalition and reach out to religious voters.
That was on display from the start of today’s interfaith ceremony that drew several hundreds to the Wells Fargo Theater at the Colorado Convention Center. Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of the Reform synagogue Rodef Shalom of Falls Church, Va., joined with the Rev. Lucia Guzman, director of Human Rights/Community Relations in Denver; Imam Mohammad Mardini of the American Muslim Center in Dearborn, Mich.; and Dr. Patrick Whelan, president of the Boston-based group Catholic Democrats for the opening prayer.
In addition to readings from the Qur’an, the Sutra Nipata and music by gospel and Indian singers was a Torah reading (Genesis 45:1-7, 48:1-2, 8-16) by Rabbi Steven Foster of Denver’s Congregation Emmanuel as well as a sermon by Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.
The leaders were “free to speak our minds,” said Sister Helen Prejean, who wrote the book “Dead Man Walking” about death row inmates, who advocated for ending capital punishment.
Sharing the 2,000 year old story of Hillel and the biblical message to “love your neighbor as your self,” Weinreb and the other religious communal leaders emphasized commonalities of different faiths – believe in one God, freedom of religion, equality and opportunity, and caring for others instead of focusing on theological differences that divide.
Together with other religious leaders, they advocated for choice in education, reducing and eliminating capital punishment, helping the poor and sick, and reducing the numbers of abortions while also recognizing the responsibility to care for those who are born. They called for diplomacy, teaching of non-violent conflict resolution in schools, funding mass transit, health care and clean energy. They also advocated for apologizing to African Americans for slavery.
“Today we honor and respect our differences while striving to find our commonality,” said Daughtry. “It remains true that there is more that unites us than divides us.”