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Democratic Leader Hopes to Advance Faith Agenda

The third-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives plans to use the influence of his new position to help quell the misperception that the initials GOP stand for God’s Only Party.

Rep. James E. Clyburn, 65, officially became chair of the House Democratic Caucus last Monday, 13 years after coming to Washington as South Carolina’s first African-American elected to Congress since Reconstruction.

This past weekend Clyburn met with Bishop T.D. Jakes at the 28,000-member Potter’s HouseChurch in Dallas. Clyburn described Jakes as “an extraordinary leader in the Christian community” and said he looks forward to ongoing dialogue with the religious leader “regarding faith and how it shapes our public policies.”

A year ago House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi named Clyburn to lead the House Democratic Faith Working Group. (The BaptistCenter for Ethics co-sponsored a screening of the documentary “Theologians Under Hitler” for members of the Democratic Faith Working Group in November.)

The group formed on the heels of the 2004 presidential election, where those self-identifying in exit polls as “values voters” came out in droves to help re-elect President Bush. Other surveys showed that many Americans viewed Republicans as being friendly to religion and Democrats as indifferent or hostile to people of faith.

Clyburn said many devout Democrats in the past avoided wearing their religion on their sleeves out of respect for the separation of church and state, but some politicians who “walk the walk” have now “decided it is time to talk the talk.”

“The Democratic agenda is deeply rooted in faith,” Clyburn said in a press release last February, “but we have been less effective than we could be in communicating how our moral values guide our policies.”

Clyburn told EthicsDaily.com on Friday that Pelosi asked him to continue to chair the faith working group, in hopes his new job might enhance its agenda.

“We have always maintained that what we do as Democrats is fundamental to the Christian ethics most of us practice,” he said. “The problem has been we’ve attempted to compartmentalize those things, when in fact they go together hand in glove.”

“As chair of House Democrats, I am going to do as much as I can to continue that message.”

Clyburn is a member of Morris Brown African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., a prominent congregation established in the era following the Civil War. But he grew up as a minister’s son in the fundamentalist Church of God

Clyburn said he was headed for seminary after college but became more interested in law than theology his junior year. He discussed it with his father, who blessed his decision with the words, “The world is much better off to see a sermon than to hear one.”

Asked about Bible-believing Christians who tend to reduce morality to one or two issues when it comes to a social agenda, Clyburn said his favorite Bible book is James.

“I take seriously the admonitions that James laid out,” Clyburn said. “He made it very clear in the second chapter, if a brother or sister comes to you hungry and naked, it’s not enough to tell them to go in peace. What is required is to feed them and clothe them.”

“I think that is fundamental to what Christianity is all about,” Clyburn said. “He tells us faith without works is dead.”

Clyburn said he believes a Wednesday declaration by congressional Democrats urging a ban on all gifts and travel paid for by lobbyists is also a moral issue.

“All of us have sinned and fallen short,” he said, and therefore ought to be forgiving when it comes to matters of personal sin.

But when sins become institutionalized to the point that they become “part of the culture of the institution,” he said, “We have gone far beyond what is forgivable. We have in fact gone beyond the pale.”

He also supports ending the war in Iraq and has spoken in favor of values such as fighting poverty, improving schools, speaking out against materialism and greed, providing better housing and fighting for social and economic justice.

As Democratic Caucus chairman, Clyburn becomes the third-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives. His job as chairman is to build and implement consensus among House Democrats. The caucus, which meets weekly, nominates and elects House Democratic leadership, approves committee assignments and makes and enforces caucus rules.

Former Democratic Caucus chairs include former senator and presidential candidate Richard Gephardt and former House Speakers Sam Rayburn, John McCormack and Thomas Foley.

Clyburn previously served as the caucus vice chair. He succeeds previous chair Robert Menendez, a Cuban-American from New Jersey, who moved from the House to the Senate after being appointed to fill a vacancy created when Jon Corzine resigned from the Senate to become governor of New Jersey.

Clyburn is the second African-American to chair the House Democratic Caucus and the only lawmaker from a minority group currently in Democratic leadership.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.