WASHINGTON—A convention of evangelical Christians gave standing ovations this week to Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill.
And that's news, because pro-choice, pro-gay rights Democrats aren't usually favorites of evangelicals. But that could be changing as the Democratic Party tries to reconnect with so-called "values voters," and some evangelical leaders try to extend religious debates beyond gay marriage and abortion.
"It's been terribly politicized and polarized. Moral values can't be narrowed to those two," said the Rev. Jim Wallis, leader of the Sojourners. His "progressive evangelical" group organized a three-day conference in Washington this week to lobby politicians on behalf of the poor. Six hundred clergy and their followers attended workshops, listened to speeches and visited their congressional representatives.
Influential politicians from both sides of the political spectrum came to speak about poverty as a moral issue, including Republican evangelical favorites such as Sens. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Sam Brownback of Kansas.
But there was Howard Dean, too, a star speaker, even though he once proclaimed the Book of Job his favorite part of the New Testament. (It's in the Old Testament.)
Democrats were eager to cast many of their traditional issues, such as Social Security, affordable health care and a higher minimum wage, as moral concerns. America needs "a social safety net that will take care of people. That is the mark of true Christianity," Dean said.
"The budget is a moral document," Clinton said.
Obama said Democrats shouldn't let "fear of getting preachy" stop them from talking about issues in terms of morality.
"Keeping the environment pristine and green and passing it on, I think that's a faith issue," said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C. Some speeches even had the air of a Baptist revival, with supporters shouting, "Amen" and "Alright, preach it!"
The DNC confirmed that this was part of a larger program to reach out to religious voters. "These are part of ongoing efforts. I think you will definitely see more of this on our part," said DNC spokeswoman Amaya Smith. "This is part of our overall strategy."
Wallis was adamant that his anti-poverty movement is nonpartisan.
"God is not a Republican or a Democrat," he said. "I want Republicans to talk about more than gay marriage and abortion. I want Democrats to talk about abortion and poverty in moral terms."
"Religion should not be captive to any political party," said the Rev. Jessica Butler, executive director of Faith in Public Life, which organizes liberal religious groups.
Wallis is harsh on conservatives who have recently been the face of religious politics.
"Thirty thousand children died today. If I was an unborn child and I wanted the attention of the far right, I would've stayed unborn," he said. He charges abortion opponents with not supporting programs to reduce childhood mortality.
The Rev. Tim Ahrens shared Wallis' dismay: "The faith of Jesus Christ has become such a violent and violating faith in the religious right," he contended. Ahrens is the founder of We Believe Ohio, a group of 300 clergy members dedicated to promoting social justice.
Some of his followers now are increasingly proud to talk about their religious beliefs in public, Ahrens said. "It was embarrassing to say that before, because it meant `I'm reactionary, and I'm right-wing and I'm mean,'" he said.
Many Sojourner supporters didn't hesitate to call right-wingers "bible thumpers" and "fanatics," and they criticized the Bush administration for not helping the poor. They gave Obama thunderous applause when he proclaimed his support for separation of church and state and giving teenagers access to contraception.
"These are a new kind of Christian," said Sojourners spokesman Jack Pannell.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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