Baptists Dominate Opening Night at Democratic Convention


Three Baptists were prime-time speakers Monday night at the Democratic National Convention in Boston.

Former Vice President Al Gore and former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were keynote speakers on the opening-night program at the convention in Boston. About 50,000 participants, including 5,000 delegates and 15,000 members of the media, are expected to attend the four-day convention at the Boston Fleet Centre.

 

It may be coincidental—their religion isn't mentioned on the convention Web site or in media reports leading up to the event—but the confluence comes at a time when church politicking is in the spotlight. The Bush-Cheney campaign was recently criticized for a memo seeking volunteers in Bush-friendly churches to perform 22 duties, including turning over church directories and handing out voter guides.

 

President Bush has reached out to the religious right by endorsing a proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and speaking via satellite to last month's Southern Baptist Convention.

 

Some Democrats, meanwhile, such as Sojourners' Jim Wallis, have challenged the party to do a better job of appealing to religious voters. Sojourners recently announced a voter-registration campaign called "Register, Pray, Vote," which includes articles on election issues.

 

One observer said the Monday night program at the Democratic convention could be termed "The Baptist Hour," a reference to a Southern Baptist-produced radio program that has aired since the 1940s.

 

"Monday night at the Democratic Nation Convention looks like the Baptist hour," said Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics. "Whether by crafty design or amusing serendipity, the presence of three of America's best-known, southern-grown Baptists in keynote slots suggests that the religious right is wrong in its pronouncements that the Republican Party is the Christian Party."

 

Gore and his wife, Tipper, were baptized at Mt. Vernon Baptist Church in Arlington, Va., but he considers his grandparents' New Salem Missionary Baptist Church near Carthage, Tenn., his home church.

 

Carter, with his famous Sunday school class at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga., is regarded one of the 20th century's most devout presidents. His 1976 campaign introduced the term "born again" into America's political lexicon. A lifelong Southern Baptist, Carter in 2000 renounced his ties with the denomination citing a rightward drift in the convention's leadership.

 

As governor of Arkansas, Clinton worshiped regularly at Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock and sang in the choir. His church membership became an issue during his presidency when a messenger at the Southern Baptist Convention sought to have Immanuel excluded for failure to "discipline" Clinton over his views on abortion and gays in the military.

 

While the religious right has long been linked with the Republican Party, the GOP's interest in the religious vote has been bolstered by recent surveys reporting that voters who are more religious strongly support President George W. Bush.

 

Pollster George Barna reported last month that 86 percent evangelicals plan to vote for Bush, while just 8 percent expect to vote for Sen. John Kerry.

 

Newsday reported findings of a Time Magazine poll that 59 percent of Americans who consider themselves "very religious" support the president compared to 35 percent who support Kerry. Those who are "not religious" prefer Kerry 69 percent to 22 percent.

 

USA Today reported a poll showing that people who say they attend church weekly voted for George W. Bush over Al Gore in the 2000 election by a margin of 58 percent to 42 percent. For those who attend more than once a week, the gap was even wider, 68 percent to 32 percent. Those who attend less frequently tended toward Gore. People attending church once or twice a month voted for Gore 59 percent to 41 percent.

 

Some analysts question the so-called "religion gap."

 

John Green and Mark Silk of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life say that when gender is taken into account, the gap in party preference between regular- and less-attending worshipers narrows.

 

They say the biggest gap is between men who report attending once a week or more and women who report less than once a week. The rest of the population—regular-attending women and less-attending men—are equally divided and could swing either way.

 

Green and Silk also question why there would be such a difference in voting patterns among those who attend church at least weekly. "The simple answer is that for most Americans weekly worship attendance is normative: Telling a pollster that you attend weekly is a widely accepted way of saying that you are a religious person."

 

Research shows that many Americans over-report both their worship attendance and voting patterns, Green and Silk say. "So the religion gap is as much about citizens' religious self-perception and self-presentation as it is about their actual participation in congregational life."

 

A recent poll by Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found Americans are evenly divided over which political party can do a better job in providing moral leadership.

 

Everyone agrees the Republicans have done a better job of using religious language in political rhetoric, prompting some to urge Democrats to get over their aversion to talking about matters of faith.

 

"Religion, values and morality are not copyrighted by the Republican Party," Amy Sullivan, a doctoral student at Princeton University and author of Political Aims, wrote recently in Blueprint magazine. "They belong to everyone. Democrats can and should take them back." The Washington Monthly last year published an article by Sullivan titled "Do the Democrats Have a Prayer?"

 

Wallis said Democrats are beginning to heed the message. He met with the Democratic Platform Committee in late June to discuss "faith-based" issues like economic justice. "Religion should not be the exclusive possession of the Republican or Democratic Party, the right or the left, but must be able to critique and challenge both," Wallis wrote on Sojo.net. "And clearly, in this election, Christians will be voting both ways, because of their faith."

 

The Democratic National Committee on Friday named its first-ever director for religious outreach.

 

The BCE's Parham also disputes the presumption that the GOP, as a bumper sticker puts it, is "God's Own Party."

 

"In the past 30 years, two Southern Baptists were elected president and another one won the popular election by over 500,000 votes," Parham said. "Cleary, a significant segment of the Christian community voted for Democratic Party candidates, negating the religious right's claim that they reflect the Christian perspective."

 

"Real Christians understand that neither party is perfectly moral or thoroughly immoral," he said. 

 

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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