Democrats Struggle with Faith Outreach


Democrats Struggle with Faith Outreach | Brian Kaylor, DNC, Faith Outreach, Democrats

In a hallway near the Faith Council meeting room, a large cubicle was set up with a sign designating it the "Prayer Room." Other than 16 empty chairs, the simple structure remained empty most of the time. (Photo: Brian Kaylor)
As Democrats gathered in Charlotte, N.C., last week to push for the re-election of President Barack Obama, they found themselves criticized for removing the word "God" from the party platform.

The attacks – and the disorganized response – undermined the faith outreach of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

Derrick Harkins, who has served as the DNC's Faith Outreach Director since October 2011, pushed back against news reports on Wednesday that Democrats removed the sole reference to God in the platform.

He defended the platform as sufficiently religious without the reference to God.

"The word 'faith' is used, I believe, 11 times, the word 'religion' is used nine times – you can tell I've been talking with our communications department – the word 'clergy' is used once," Harkins said during the DNC's Morning Prayer Gathering on Wednesday as he noted that the removed phrase dealt with economic matters and not faith.

"The word 'God' was mentioned 30 times last night by various speakers up on the podium."

"Faith is an integral part of the Democratic Party," Harkins added Wednesday afternoon during a meeting of the DNC's Faith Council.

"I had someone a long time ago say to me, 'It's not what you write down, it's how you live it out.' And the temerity of individuals to cast aspersions on the value of faith because of a shift in a paragraph that wasn't even speaking about faith ... [and] that somehow means that God is excised from our work and from who we see ourselves as part of the American story is just unconscionable," he said. "How dare anybody say that faith is not an integral part of who we are as a party!"

Even as Harkins, pastor of the historic African-American Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., offered his defense of the DNC on religion, criticism of his faith outreach efforts continued.

After his selection to lead faith outreach efforts, some liberals criticized his selection due to his positions on same-sex marriage and abortion. Since then, others have questioned the effectiveness of the DNC's faith outreach.

Earlier this summer, EthicsDaily.com learned there were no DNC-sponsored faith events yet on the calendar for the Democratic National Convention. By last week, there were six convention faith events – four Morning Prayer Gatherings and two Faith Council meetings – but they received small billing.

The Morning Prayer Gatherings started and ended with prayer and included an interfaith panel discussion moderated by Harkins.

No program was released prior to the convention and few of the more than 5,000 delegates – in addition to thousands of alternatives and guests – attended the morning sessions. About two dozen to four dozen individuals joined Harkins and his panels for the 9 a.m. sessions.

The two Faith Council meetings drew a larger crowd, with about 200 people attending each of the two-hour gatherings (held mid-day on Monday and Wednesday).

As the previous caucus meeting organizers took down their professionally printed signs, the faith outreach leaders placed a hand-drawn "Faith Council" sign outside the meeting doors. Inside, the speakers spoke behind a podium that still included another professional sign from the previous caucus.

In a hallway near the Faith Council meeting room, a large cubicle was set up with a sign designating it the "Prayer Room." Other than 16 empty chairs, the simple structure remained empty most of the time.

Months before the DNC faith events appeared on the convention schedule, the Baptist Center for Ethics announced a screening of "Gospels Without Borders" at Saint Peter's Catholic Church – across the street from the Charlotte Convention Center – to inject a faith discussion of immigration into the week's proceedings.

The DNC failed to include that event on its calendar. It did include numerous other non-affiliated programs, such as yoga classes and Zumba dances.

Religious leaders and reporters have complained about lack of responses from Harkins.

Concerns from Democrats also arose after 24-year-old Michael Wear was selected to lead the Obama campaign's 2012 faith outreach despite limited faith leadership experience.

Wear, who was hired by the campaign in May, did not speak during the DNC faith events last week in Charlotte.

During the DNC Faith Council meeting last Monday, Obama campaign adviser Broderick Johnson revealed how the Obama campaign's 2012 Catholic outreach was initially an afterthought.

"As I was getting my assignments," Johnson explained, "from Jim Messina, our campaign manager – and it was African-American leadership and it was working the Hill – and I said as I was leaving the room – this was in October – 'Jim, I'll do the Catholic outreach, too.' And he's like, 'go ahead.'"

EthicsDaily.com has heard complaints about lack of communication from Joshua DuBois, who heads the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

One denominational official noted DuBois lacked ecumenical knowledge needed for the position as he invited the wrong denominational leader to represent them at a meeting.

DuBois, who ran the Obama campaign's 2008 faith outreach, did not attend the convention in Charlotte due to an overseas trip to learn about year-round relief and interfaith projects.

Only a few speakers at DNC faith events mentioned the work of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. However, Harkins pointed to the changing DNC platform on the topic.

As Harkins defended the platform during his comments at Wednesday's Morning Prayer Gathering, he pointed to the shift in support for faith-based initiatives as proof of the DNC's commitment to faith.

The platform includes new language approving governmental support for faith-based groups that previously led some Democrats to attack George W. Bush's administration for violating separation of church and state. Obama not only kept the office in place, but expanded its work.

"There's an entire plank in our platform this time around that speaks to the critical importance of faith-based institutions and the critical importance of faith communities and the work that they do and the partnership they have with government," Harkins said.

Harkins noted at multiple DNC faith events that the DNC was holding more faith events at the 2012 convention than at previous ones.

The four sparsely attended Morning Prayer Gatherings made Harkins' statement true.

Yet, his sessions lacked some of the influential figures involved in the faith panels four years ago in Denver, including Jim Wallis of Sojourners and megachurch pastor Joel Hunter.

This year's DNC faith events included fewer white Protestant clergy than four years ago. Most panelists were African-American Christians, with a mix of other Christian, Mormon, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu figures.

Overall, there were more Jewish rabbis and more Mormon leaders than white Protestant clergy or Hispanic leaders.

As Harkins entered the room to a faith event, he visited with his clergy friends. Even during the mostly empty Morning Prayer Gatherings, Harkins did not work his way around to meet the few delegates and guests present as he delayed the start – each morning – in hopes of more people coming.

During one event, Harkins explained he was not focused on grassroots outreach – something some critics have charged.

"The focus of our [faith outreach] work has been to engage with what we like to call grass-tops, as opposed to grassroots," Harkins said during the DNC Faith Council meeting on Monday. "[That] really means that we know that by way of capacity, our efforts and time are best used by engaging with leaders – leaders within the faith community, leaders across the spectrum of the faith community. Helping them understand the goals, the aims and the priorities, not only obviously of this presidential election cycle but indeed of the Democratic Party overall."

Harkins, who does not miss a Sunday at his church, added that he was "traveling around the country speaking with faith leaders, holding roundtables, holding leadership conference calls with leaders from across the country."

Harkins believes the "grass-tops" clergy will take his message to their respective grassroots in time for election day.

As Harkins worked Wednesday to defend the DNC platform as religious enough without the "God" clause, DNC leaders reacted to the media criticism and decided to bring the clause Harkins derided as unimportant back into the platform.

Platform Committee Chairman Ted Strickland, a former Ohio governor noted for his faith outreach during his 2006 campaign, brought the floor amendment Wednesday night to reinstate the stricken "God" language.

The voice vote, which also included reinserting a reference to Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, did not go as planned.

As Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa presided over the vote, he struggled to reconcile the script on the teleprompter declaring two-thirds had voted in the affirmative with the nearly even vote he heard.

Like a biblical story, he asked for the vote three times before finally reading the script that contradicted the sound.

With boos in the air, Strickland and Villaraigosa ended the disorganized moment intended to provide cover for the DNC on faith and created a metaphor for the DNC's faith outreach efforts.

Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.

View Kaylor's photos from the DNC here, here and here.

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Tags: Brian Kaylor, Democrats, DNC, Faith Outreach