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Outreach Goes Only so Far

From the August 6, 2004 Wall Street Journal: Are the Democrats religion-friendly?

12:00 AM, Aug 11, 2004 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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JOHN KERRY has long been on record with his view that the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance don't violate the First Amendment's ban on establishing religion. But days before the Democrats convened in Boston, the Democratic National Committee announced as its first ever director of outreach to religious groups a clergywoman who takes the opposite view.

In February, the Rev. Brenda Bartella Peterson was one of 32 clergymen who filed an amicus brief in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Michael Newdow, the case in which Newdow, an atheist, objected to his daughter's having to say the Pledge of Allegiance--with its reference to a nation "under God"--at her public school. The clergymen agreed with him. On Monday, the New York-based Catholic League publicized Peterson's position, and by Wednesday she had resigned from the DNC, explaining that it was "no longer possible for me to do my job effectively."

It was an embarrassing episode but an emblematic one. Of late the Democrats have had problems trying to overcome their image as a secular party. Earlier this year the Kerry campaign hired as its religious outreach director Mara Vanderslice, who had worked in a similar capacity for Howard Dean. Dean's most striking comment on religion, you'll remember, came when he located Job in the New Testament. When the Catholic League (ever the watchdog) noted Vanderslice's left-wing activist past and said that she was more suited for a job with Fidel Castro, the campaign quarantined her from the press.

In Boston last week the Democratic National Convention showed some of its religious side by sponsoring a "People of Faith for Kerry" luncheon. (Up front sat both the still-employed Peterson and the on-ice Vanderslice.) "This is the first time in the history of the Democratic party that we've made space and time to come together as people of faith," announced the Rev. Leah Doughtry, who is not only a minister but chief of staff for the DNC.

The luncheon featured Christian, Jewish, and Muslim speakers who were thoroughly united in their politics. Doughtry assured the audience of about 100 people that "we can be Democrats and people of faith at the same time."

The Rev. Jim Wallis told his audience that "the separation of church and state does not require the vanishing of religious values." He identified political issues that involved such values--among them poverty, the environment, and "fighting pre-emptive war on false pretenses." Wallis declared that the "dominance by the Religious Right over faith and politics is coming to an end. And a new time of progressive, and I would add prophetic, faith has arrived."

Duly advised of this advent, many attendees, post-luncheon, strolled over to the Old South Church for a progressive/prophetic experience. The Alliance to End Hunger announced survey results showing that "the real moral issues in the presidential race" are poverty and hunger, not the definition of marriage. There followed "an interfaith service and rally" sponsored by the National Council of Churches and the United Church of Christ, among others, the purpose of which was to "raise issues of hunger and poverty in this election year."

In the sanctuary hung a cloth sign stating that "Lesbians, Gays & Friends at Old South Church" are "Open and Affirming." One of the nation's most progressive political pastors, the Rev. Dr. James Forbes of the Riverside Church in Manhattan, who had spoken to the earlier luncheon, delivered the sermon. The service ended with a "statement of our vision" in which attendees committed themselves to public policies favoring "full employment," "a true livable wage," "universal access to prekindergarten and childcare programs" and a "progressive tax policy." Not exactly the Apostles Creed, but you have to remember that progressive, even prophetic, faith was astir.

Before the service, Forbes told me that it is necessary for the Kerry campaign to be more explicit about religion if the Democrats' vision for the country is "to be embraced by the electorate."

In his acceptance speech, John Kerry explicitly sounded a religion-friendly theme. "We welcome people of faith," he said. But which people of faith? Those well left of center, theologically and politically, for sure. Beyond that, doubtful.

Has anyone thought of doing some outreach?

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard.