There was a lot of hype the week before the Democratic National Convention about its Faith Caucus – and debate over whether the intersection of religion and politics would be harmful for both (here and here). But a visit to Tuesday’s two “Faith in Action” panel discussions found a program that had similarities with the kinds of discussions that happen at conferences and think tanks throughout Washington every week. In fact, one could argue that the Faith Caucus was more of a marketing tool – and considering the publicity, an effective one – to alert voters that the Democrats care about religious voters just as much as the Republicans do.
For example, the second of two panels, “Faith in 2009,” featured Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism director Rabbi David Saperstein and John DiIulio, who was the first head of President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative, discussing the various issues and problems, constitutional and otherwise, with providing government money to religiously-infused social service providers – and what they thought of Obama’s speech earlier this year on the matter. In the first hour, various religious leaders spoke of how their religious teachings inspire them to work on certain issues. For instance, Rabbi Jack Moline of Alexandria, Va., emphasized the importance of education, quoting the Talmud’s teaching that study is more important than action because “study leads to action.” Other speakers talked about poverty and immigration, and former U.S. Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.), an opponent of abortion, urged everyone to find “common ground” on reducing the number of abortions. (Roemer’s colleague at the Chicago Theological Seminary, on the other hand, was a little off-message – using her speech more as a way to criticize Republican policies toward women than examine a particular policy issue.)
Both rabbinical participants agreed that the fact that the faith caucus happened was probably more important that anything that was said at the gathering.
“The purpose was not to generate controversy,” said Moline, but to demonstrate what people of faith “have in common” and demonstrate the “breadth of faith value concerns.”
Saperstein said the Democrats’ goal was to demonstrate their party can provide a place “just as open and friendly to those who want to bring their [religious] views” as any other party.
One rabbi who wasn’t a fan of the gathering was Rabbi Michael Lerner of the Tikkun Community. He said that instead of holding what he called a “cheerleading” session for Obama, participants should have held a discussion that allowed for a “prophetic critique” of Democratic policies – such as the value of the plan to move the “war from Iraq to Afghanistan, instead of ending the war.”
One addendum to put the entire Faith Caucus in context is necessary. The discussions were not a part of the official convention program that took place at the Pepsi Center with all delegates in attendance. It was one of the dozens of meetings that took place during the day at the Colorado Convention Center sponsored by party organizations and various interest groups. A few hundred people were present, but most delegates and other convention participants were not in attendance and many may not have known it was even occurring.