Wednesday, October 08, 2008

At the DNC: The Faith Caucus

The Democratic National Convention was a great experience for me and for the city of Denver, though many of its consequences for the Democrats won’t be known for years.

The Sunday the convention began, I was informed that Catholic News Agency's credentials application had been approved after we were wait listed following an initial denial.

Hurrying downtown, I collected my credentials. Clueless about what to do with them, I felt like a dog who had finally caught the car he had been chasing. I certainly missed many freebies because of this ignorance.

With little time to plan, my editor and I decided the Faith in Action Forum, held the Tuesday and Thursday of convention week, could yield some quality stories.

We were not disappointed.

Most of the "Faith Caucus" panels were hosted by Sojourners editor and Evangelical pastor Rev. Jim Wallis, who told several jokes and sometimes even quoted Catholic social teaching.

At one point DNC Chairman Howard Dean made a surprise appearance at the Faith Forum.

Saying the party had acted as if “we mustn’t talk about religion,” he said “I think we’ve made a lot of progress for the last couple of years... I am thrilled to be in a party that no longer cedes the faith community to the Republican Party.”

He made the standard non-committal remarks any public figure makes about religion. Talking about how religions in the United States put aside their differences to unite, he echoed the standard neoconservative empty boasts about the U.S. being a “universal country.”

Would that we were a provincial nation instead!

Dean’s words were not the language of a society that recognizes its limits. Constrained by the secularist wing of the Democratic Party, his rhetoric could not place the United States “under God.” Indeed, his tone implied the United States herself was that Higher Power.

His short talk, which alternated between unconscious hubris and appealing platitudes, charged that Republicans pretend the United States is a mono-religious country. The diversity of the Democrats, he suggested, means the party must talk about religion in a different way.

To this, one might reply that while the Republicans may pretend there is more religious unity in the country than there really is, they do not pretend very well or very hard. Their religious references are generally bland and reactive to the latest secularist advance. Their rhetoric rarely translates from opportunistic vote-seeking into substantive action, as they too must strike a balance between Evangelical Christians, conservative Catholics, secular elites, and non-religious libertarians.

As for the Democrats, they often pretend there is far more religious diversity than there really is. Their idea of diversity is formed by the creedal melange of the college town or the big city, rather than the suburbs or the rural areas where religious belief is generally split between Christian denominations and the congenial unchurched.

(The Democratic leadership is also perhaps swayed by its religious minority donors. For instance, if it is correctly reported that more than half of Democratic presidential giving comes from Jewish contributors, strict Church-State separationism will dominate the party’s ethos regardless of that position’s wisdom or popularity.)

Obviously, Dean would not criticize the obnoxious secularism of certain party activists. Alas, such activists have done more than anyone else to help the Republicans play identity politics. Both Republican pandering and secularist pushiness have swayed Christians and others rightly disgusted by the licentious and impious path the Democratic activist leadership has taken.

Generally speaking, the faith panelists themselves were of very high quality, speaking as people desirous to inform, rather than merely persuade. Unlike the Senators I observed at other caucuses, the speakers rarely relied on slogans or flattery.

Perhaps the quality of a speaker is inversely proportional to his or her need to appeal broadly.

Diving into policy, Prof. John DiIulio and Rabbi David Saperstein discussed the future of faith-based initiatives. While there was nothing untoward about their discussion, it is quite clear that Democratic policymakers are pondering how to co-opt faith-based initiatives for their own political ends. The abolition of the programs was not considered, and speakers made foreboding, terse references to new non-discrimination regulations under an Obama administration.

Such regulations could include “anti-sexist” measures for charities run by churches of an all-male clergy, rules that would prevent charities from preferring their own coreligionists for leadership positions, and those predictable culture war issues which can be cast in the legal language of anti-bias.

Just as Bush’s critics warned, his program has become a tar baby for civic-minded religious groups.

Nonetheless, the speakers at the Faith in Action forum were far more concerned about the ability of politics to co-opt religion and “mute the prophetic” than mainstream Republican Christians have appeared to be. Rev. Otis Moss, Jr. quoted the remarks of his mentor, Martin Luther King, Jr, who said that the church ought to be neither servant nor master of the state, but rather its conscience.

“We should never allow the state to dwarf our witness,” Rev. Moss said.

One panelist discussed the surprising and saddening issue of modern slavery, claiming that there are between 50,000 to 100,000 people who are treated as slaves in the U.S. each year. When the enslaving conditions of sex trafficking, abused immigrant labor, and pure human meanness are considered, that number is too believable.

Two other panel speakers discussed how to reduce the numbers of abortions. There, it became clear to me that injunctions to seek “common ground” on the abortion issue are often just methods of avoiding the debate about whether or not the country is perpetrating a grave injustice.

“I’m tired of all the shouting on this question,” panel host Rev. Jim Wallis said. “The shouting has to stop. Let’s find some common ground.”

Yet the debate is precisely over who deserves to share the common ground of the community. When we let highly trained medical professionals fatally assault the unwanted unborn at the request of their distressed mothers, we have already declared that such people do not count.

One can’t deny human solidarity in one breath and plea for unity in the next without glaring inconsistency.

Certain Republicans have often hoped their party can poach socially conservative African-Americans away from the Democrats on moral issues. A few speakers from the Faith in Action panels would give those in the GOP some hope, as when one African-American Democrat rose to speak.

“I am a pro-life Democrat, and I like to think there is room for me in this party,” Rev. Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner said, receiving scattered applause. She argued that African-Americans care about the “sanctity of life” and the “sanctity of marriage,” adding “and they want to be in this party!”

Daydreaming Republicans should remember her closing words: they want to be Democrats. At the same panel Rev. Romal Tune noted with perplexity how he had once read a Family Research Council pamphlet that didn’t mention poverty among its moral issues. At another panel, it was obvious that prison reform and prisoner rehabilitation is a vital issues to this Democratic constituency.

Facing the prospect of their young men being sent through the hellholes of the American prison system, where they risk further moral corruption, rape and AIDS, it’s obvious that abortion is not the only life-or-death issue for the African-American community.

Let us remember that a lack of health care, too, appears to be a mortal threat for those on the borders of economic security.

Groups with such concerns are never going to vote for a party sternly dominated by anti-welfare and law-and-order policymaking.

Further, Republican daydreams place the interest of party over the public good. It is good for social conservatism to have representatives in both parties. Indeed, that presence is a prerequisite for any eventual return to a national consensus on such issues.

Worse, when social conservatives act as Republicans first, they risk ignoring threats to their philosophical allies in the other party.

For instance, there was an under-reported conflict between Democratic African-Americans and the Democrats’ LGBT faction, resulting in a lawsuit against the DNC.

At the linked page, DNC Chair Howard Dean testifies in the suit: “I wanted equal representation for gay and lesbian Americans, and I wanted to achieve it in a way that wasn’t offensive to the history of the civil rights movement.”

This likely means socially conservative black Democrats have taken offense at certain activists’ tactless insinuations that such loyal Democrats are the segregationists and Klansmen of the present because of their opposition to gay rights. It is a common conflict; earlier this year one black woman was even fired from her university employer for writing an article which took exception to the gay rights/civil rights analogy.

While I have not thoroughly investigated the matter, apparently the DNC delegate rules now include affirmative action provisions favorable to the impolitic but effective LGBT crowd. Democratic delegate quotas for youth and women precipitated the demise of the New Deal Coalition, and any similar rules privileging sexual lifestyle activists will further prevent the revival of that coalition’s better surviving elements.

These rule changes had been opposed by many African Americans, yet I doubt this conflict was prominent in the Republican social conservatives’ echo chamber. It seems to have been covered most in the gay press, which shows a deep animosity against African-American Pentecostal minister and DNC CEO Rev. Leah Daughtry.

Rounding out my listing of Faith Caucus stories, I should mention that Pepperdine law professor Douglas Kmiec was a panelist. He tried to explain how a pro-life Catholic like him ended up supporting Obama, and briefly discoursed on the Catholic vote. Kmiec’s position is further described in a below post on the Democrats for Life Town Hall Meeting.

The close of the faith caucus prompts the question: why have a faith caucus at all?

Though the African-American community is more accustomed to clergyman politicians than other groups, most churches don’t want ministers to become political delegates. A Machiavel could with reason see the caucus as an effort to train tame preachers as counterparts to prominent Evangelicals on the right.

However, these ministers are also community leaders. Perhaps like the Holy See’s observer mission to the United Nations, their access to the party may at best advance issues of mutual interest and provide still other avenues to inform leaders of community problems.

One obvious application of the Faith Caucus is to temper, rather than conceal, the acerbic atheism of some party regulars.

Yet some Faith Caucus members themselves think such an effort could be a threat to party unity.

Addressing one panel, a questioner pondered how “principled secularists” would react to a growing faith caucus, worrying that the party itself could be fractured by secularist reaction.

“It’s a sad commentary that religion is such a scary word,” one speaker answered, promptly blaming his theological and political opponents of the Religious Right for religion’s bad reputation.

This blame-shifting is a mistake. Rebuking irreligion of the type represented by the reprehensible Amanda Marcotte is a basic part of social hygiene. Fanatical secularists have a culpable ignorance of religion that should be excused and tolerated even less than the damaging excesses and obscurantism of Evangelical populism.

One would like to think that such rebukes go on in private, as the operative rule at a party convention is the Eleventh Commandment paraphrased: “never speak ill of a fellow partisan.”

But to speculate on whether such actions are ongoing tempts one to judge by one’s hopes, rather than by one’s observations. Until Democratic leaders begin turning the Bill Mahers and the P.Z. Myerses into Sister Souljahs, we will have little evidence of progress.

Also at the DNC:

Faith Caucus

Women's Caucus

LGBT Caucus

Democrats for Life Town Hall

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your interest in rehabilitating a ruthlessly secular Democratic party strikes me as being as effective as trying to rehabilitate the Nazi Party in 1936.