Democrats try to bridge 'God gap'

Jimmy Carter swept to power in 1976 on the strength of his Christian beliefs, now Obama's supporters are keeping the faith too.

Democratic party delegates stand for the opening prayer of their party's convention.
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DENVER // With the bowing of heads and three uttered words - "Let us pray" - the Democratic National Convention convened its first faith caucus this week as part of an unprecedented effort to sell the party as a comfortable home for "values" voters. It is an attempt to address what has been dubbed the "God gap", the electoral edge Republicans have held, particularly in recent years with the rise of the religious right, among voters for whom so-called moral issues are deciding factors at the ballot box. "I think this is symbolic of what the Democratic Party stands for," Shaun Casey, the evangelical outreach co-ordinator for Barack Obama, said of the faith caucus debate the party held on the convention's second day. "It's knocking down the myth that it is the anti-God party." The irony of that anti-God image is that, just 30 years ago, evangelicals embraced Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer from Georgia who was a self-described "born-again" Christian - and a Democrat. He won the vote of more than half the country's evangelicals in 1976. But the Democratic Party was uneasy embracing religion the way Mr Carter did, and the Republicans stepped in. They courted the faith vote, actively and effectively, and soon enough, it was largely theirs. But in Denver, where people wear "Believers for Barack" buttons and raise signs saying "Pro-Family, Pro-Obama", Democrats have launched a concerted effort to take faith back. The convention's first official event was an interfaith gathering on Sunday, featuring reverends, rabbis, imams and rousing gospel singing. And its chief executive officer is Leah Daughtry, who in addition to serving as chief of staff to the DNC, is a Pentecostal preacher at a Washington, DC, church, who knows how to command a congregation of any kind. None of that is by accident. Democrats did nothing of this sort at the 2004 convention and, on election day that year, it showed: John Kerry fared miserably among evangelicals, who make up about a quarter of the US electorate, garnering only a fifth of their support. "Moral issues" used only to mean the same few contentious ones, namely abortion and same-sex marriage. But Mr Obama and the Democratic Party are trying to widen the definition to include poverty, the war in Iraq, access to health care, immigration and even school reform. "It is inaccurate to say all evangelicals in the United States care about only a few hot-button issues," said Mr Casey, an assistant professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, who now travels the country touting Mr Obama as the true "values" candidate. "The moral agenda is broader than someone who tells you it's only one or two hot-button issues." While there is a constitutional divide between church and state in America, faith very much informs public life here, and Mr Obama has made it a centrepiece of his politics. In 2006, he delivered a speech at the "Call to Renewal" conference in which he talked about his personal faith journey as a Christian and the ways in which religion does, and should, intersect with politics. He said conservative leaders had all but convinced evangelicals that Democrats "disrespect their values and dislike their church" and had suggested that "religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage; school prayer and intelligent design". Meanwhile, Mr Obama said then, Democrats shied away from the conversation. Some even dismissed religion in public life as "inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word 'Christian' describes one's political opponents, not people of faith". Mr Obama, who was not raised religious, and found Christianity as an adult, has taken a different approach. His campaign has formed faith advisory committees, including ones for Catholics, Jews, black Protestants and "values voters", and is publishing a weekly American Values Report. In July, he announced a plan to expand federal funding for faith-based initiatives, saying a similar effort pushed by George W Bush, the US president, had fallen short. Michelle Obama, Mr Obama's wife, talked extensively about family and values in addressing the convention on its opening night. "Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values," she said. "That you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say you're going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don't know them, and even if you don't agree with them." This year's party platform includes language not only supporting a woman's right to an abortion, but to decreasing the number of them, through family planning and adoption programmes, a clear nod to evangelicals and anti-abortion Catholics. As much as Mr Obama has embraced faith in his own life, and tried to promote it as a core Democratic Party value, it has caused him some trouble on the campaign trail. He was forced to distance himself from his former pastor, the Rev Jeremiah Wright, after Mr Wright made a series of incendiary comments, including "damning" America. Mr Obama left his Chicago church. When Mr Obama was recently interviewed at the Saddleback Civil Forum by the Rev Rick Warren, an evangelical minister at a California megachurch, he quoted fluently from the Bible when asked about the country's greatest shortcoming. "We still don't abide by that basic precept of Matthew: that whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me." But his performance paled in comparison to that of his Republican rival, John McCain (who has had his own difficulties with his party's evangelical base and does not speak comfortably about his own faith). On the abortion issue, asked when a human life begins, Mr Obama, who supports abortion rights, responded that it was "above his pay grade". Still, Democrats hope they can bring values voters under the party tent this year. "We are unashamed of seeking the support of people of faith," Joshua DuBois, director of religious affairs for the Obama campaign, said at the faith caucus this week. "The message we want to convey is, there is a seat at the Democratic Party's table."