Menu JTA Search

A religious Democratic convention?

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, will deliver the invocation at the Democratic National Convention in Denver on Aug. 28, 2008. (Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism)

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, will deliver the invocation at the Democratic National Convention in Denver on Aug. 28, 2008. (Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism)

WASHINGTON (JTA) – Jewish voters and organizations often are among the first to object when Republicans and Christian conservatives inject religion into politics.

But this year, especially at their convention next week, the Democrats are jumping into the religion game – and looking to rabbis for help.

Religious leaders – among them at least seven rabbis – are expected to play an unprecedented role at this year’s Democratic convention in Denver. The convention is kicking off with a multifaith gathering on Sunday that will include Scripture readings from Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Buddhist lay and cloth leaders, and the week’s proceedings will be studded with “faith panels.”

The religious tenor is the culimination of the Democratic National Committee’s “Faith in Action” committee, which is sponsoring Sunday’s interfaith gathering. Matt Dorf, a consultant to the party and several prominent Jewish organizations, was a leading force behind the committee. The Third Way, a group that has tried to build bridges between evangelical Christians and political liberals, also will be involved. The Third Way has the backing of two prominent Jewish lawmakers, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.).

The most prominent rabbinical participant at the Democratic convention will be Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, who will deliver the invocation on Aug. 28, when Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) accepts the nomination before a crowd of at least 70,000 at Denver’s Invesco Stadium.

Other Jewish clergyman slated to participated include Rabbis Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, the executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, who will deliver the keynote address at the interfaith event; Jack Moline, a Conservative rabbi from Alexandria, Va., who chairs the Interfaith Alliance, a coalition of faith groups that advocate for church-state separation; Amy Schwartzman, a Reform rabbi from Falls Church, Va.; Marc Schneier, an Orthodox rabbi from New York and a co-founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding; Steve Foster, a Reform rabbi in Denver; and Steve Gutow, a Reconstructionist rabbi who directs the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a Jewish organizational public policy umbrella group.

The religious leaders are not endorsing anyone and have said they would welcome spots at the Republican convention.

Republicans have yet to detail similar events at their own convention, which starts Aug. 31 in St. Paul, Minn., but spokesmen have said that faith events also will be featured throughout their gathering, as they have at previous conventions.

At least one rabbi, Ira Flax, a retired military chaplain from Birmingham, Ala., will deliver an invocation. He speaks on Sept. 3, a Wednesday night, when the vice presidential candidate usually delivers his or her first major speech.

A few leaders of Jewish and civil liberties groups wonder if it’s a little too much Scripture for events that script political agendas for the next four years.

“It’s excessive, it’s aggressive and it’s beyond saying ‘vote for me because I’m a person of faith,'” said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Religion is no longer an element in understanding the character of the candidate, Foxman said, it’s become a central part of the party platforms.

“It’s all over the conventions, and that’s not where religion belongs,” he said.

There’s nothing legally untoward about the pervasiveness of religion at the conventions, but it sends a troubling message, said Barry Lynn, the director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“Private groups can do whatever they want,” Lynn said. “But it’s a troubling trend to emphasize so often the connection between a party and a particular religious outlook.”

Panels at the Democratic convention that deal with faith include titles such as “Common Ground on Common Good,” “How an Obama Administration will Engage People of Faith,” “Moral Values Issues Abroad” and “Getting Out the Faith Vote.”

“Sen. Obama is a committed Christian, and he believes that people of all faiths have an important place in American life,” Joshua Dubois, the director of religious affairs for the Obama campaign, said in a statement. “He’s proud to work with the Democratic National Convention Committee on a convention that fully engages people of faith in dialogue, celebration and prayer.”

The pervasive rabbinical presence at the convention in Denver reflects the disproportionate role Jews have played in Democratic Party politics for decades.

What’s new are evangelical leaders – among them Joel Hunter and Jim Wallis – who in recent years have sought common ground with Democrats. They suggest that the Republican platform, while in step with evangelicals on views such as abortion and gay marriage, has strayed from Christian thinking on the environment and poverty.

Obama believes Democrats can build on such outreach and draw votes away from the Republicans in critical swing states. Polling, however, has suggested that the impact of his faith-based outreach thus far has been minimal.

“I’m sure it’s not a mythological group, that there are evangelicals who will vote for Barack Obama, but I don’t see it as a herd mentality,” Lynn said.

Foxman said he wonders why Jews have not been more vocal in objecting to the conventions’ emphasis on religion.

“We are very much disturbed that the Jewish community isn’t disturbed,” he said.

One reason could be because groups that traditionally have been wary of attempts to Christianize American politics have, to a degree, been persuaded to come on board for the religious push at the conventions.

Saperstein, the Reform movement’s main man in Washington, said Democrats are recognizing that people of faith are a constituency, like many others, that gather under the party’s tent.

“It reflects the effort of both the Democratic and Republican parties to reach out to the overwhelming majority of Americans who are people of faith to say they have a place in the parties,” Saperstein said.

No one was being coerced, he added.

“People can choose whether or not to go. There are forums being held on other topics,” Saperstein said. “This is a wholesome, holistic integration in a way that reflects where people are.”

Gutow said he was honored to participate in the Democratic convention and that its religious tenor was consistent with his life’s work.

“There are lots of reasons to come to the table,” he said, “and the one that’s been left off the most has been the religion reason, and that’s been a mistake.”

Marc Stern, the counsel for the American Jewish Congress, said the symbolism was “disquieting” but was mitigated by efforts to encompass all faiths. That’s a contrast with the Republican Party under President Ronald Reagan, which at least as far as the symbolism goes exclusively embraced evangelicals.

“They all seem to be taking some care to be ecumenical,” Stern said of this year’s conventions.

In fact, Stern said, he was stunned to see four rabbis participate in the opening multifaith kickoff. He also noted the range: Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Orthodox rabbis all have been assigned roles at the Democratic event.

“I assume,” Stern added, “Obama has a goy or two as well.”

NEXT STORY