The Democratic National Committee's top representative to faith communities lashed back Wednesday against accusations that the party is anti-religion because it dropped the word "God" from its platform before reinserting it late in the afternoon.
Responding to statements from conservatives who criticized the move to drop the word, including vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan, Democratic Director of Faith Outreach the Rev. Derrick Harkins called the controversy a "complete non-issue."
Harkins spoke with The Huffington Post before a vote that reinstated the word "God" in the platform on Wednesday. He did not reply to a phone call for a follow-up conversation after the word was added back.
"How dare anybody say we don't have faith as a central component of who we are as a party," said Harkins, who is also senior pastor of Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. "It's just an obfuscating argument to say that because language was changed that we have a change of faith."
Issues such as the endorsement of same-sex marriage and President Barack Obama's health care overhaul requiring non-houses of worship to provide insurance coverage for contraception have made the role of religion in public life a dividing point between Republicans and Democrats during the election season.
And tension over the word God, included in the Democrats' platform four years ago but missing until today, has highlighted the stark differences.
"Republicans seem to be saying they have faith in America, the object," said Susan Thistlethwaite, a professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "Democrats, on the other hand, seem to be saying they have faith in each other."
Four years ago, the Democratic platform said the nation needed a government that "gives everyone willing to work hard the chance to make the most of their God-given potential." A similar segment of the new platform -- before it was changed -- said that "each one of us should be able to go as far as our talent and drive take us." This year's platform also includes a section on faith, which says it "has always been a central part of the American story, and it has been a driving force of progress and justice throughout our history."
Republicans, meanwhile, included a section on "religious freedom" -- a reference to a fight largely led by Catholic bishops against the Obama policy on contraception coverage -- in their 2012 platform, and mentioned "God" 10 times. When the platform discusses working Americans, it mentions "a free people using their God-given talents."
"The difference (between Republicans and Democrats) is that there is not a litmus test that is deployed. There is not a sense of 'unless you are a part of a specific religious group or stripe of a religious group you won't fall into the framework,'" said Harkins. "I don't want to indict the Republican Party, but I feel that is part of the reception."
Thistlethwaite said Democrats are "still reacting to the 2004 election, when there was a perception of a God gap." A Democrat who was an Obama campaign volunteer in 2008, she said the Democrats "tried in '08 to make their faith language more authentic and more visible, and it's still important to."
Democrats made a big play for religious voters in 2008, including opening their convention in Denver that year with an interfaith service for 3,000 attendees -- a first for the party -- and holding faith councils with high-profile religious leaders. That year, Obama made gains among Catholic, Protestant and evangelical voters compared to Democrats in previous elections, especially among young voters.
But a June survey by the Pew Forum found that 35 percent of Americans view Democrats as friendly toward religion, compared with 54 percent who felt the same about Republicans. It's a slight decline since 2008,
when 38 percent of Americans said Democrats were friendly toward religion, and fewer Americans, 52 percent, chose Republicans as more pro-religion.
Randall Balmer, a Dartmouth College professor who studies American religious history, noted that even such small changes should be watched carefully by Democrats.
"Democrats are always concerned about how they will look to religious voters. A lot of people do determine their vote based on religious criteria, however they define it," he said.
While faith was highlighted at the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver, the presence has been more subdued this year. An unofficial interfaith service held on Sunday at the Pritchard Memorial Baptist Church in Charlotte drew a smaller crowd than the one in Denver, while attendance at the official kickoff interfaith service for the convention Monday was in the hundreds.
But Harkins, who was appointed to his position in October and also attended faith-related gatherings at the Denver convention, says there is more discussion of religion at this year's convention and a more diverse religious coalition.
"Denver was historic on so many levels, but I think here we have a little different dynamic. From where I stand, there is an incredible amount of energy and enthusiasm," said Harkins.
Each day of the convention has opened with a morning prayer session and faith-related panels, including discussions on "loving our neighbor," "caring for the poor and those in need" and "being our brother's and sister's keeper." Among the religious communities represented at the gatherings are Episcopalians, Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, Hindus, Jews and Baptists. In addition, a two-hour faith council convened each day through Wednesday for prayers, and panel discussions on topics like "reaching religious voters" and the Obama administration's "commitment to working with people of faith," according to a schedule.
"As a party we say these are things that resonate with people of faith," said Harkis. "We are coming together around a common language and common values."
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Cardinal Timothy Dolan
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York and the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, will offer the benediction before the convention closes. Joseph Zwilling, the cardinal's spokesman, said Dolan's appearance is not an endorsement and he is going only to pray. The cardinal also prayed before the closing of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. He included a prayer for religious freedom in his Tampa remarks. The Archdiocese of New York is one of dozens of Catholic organizations suing President Barack Obama because of a portion of his health care overhaul that requires employers, including Catholic schools and hospitals but not houses of worship, to provide free contraception as part of employee health plans. Pictured, Dolan gestures during a Mass of Thanksgiving at the Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis.
Sister Simone Campbell
Sister Simone Campbell is the executive director of NETWORK, an organization of nuns that describes itself as a "Catholic social justice lobby." As Catholic bishops fought President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul because it required non-houses of worship, such as Catholic hospitals, to provide free contraception to employees as part of insurance coverage, Campbell's group said it supported the administration's decision. Campbell is also known for leading the Nuns on the Bus tour, a nine-state trip focusing on Catholic teachings about caring for the poor. The tour targeted Rep. Paul Ryan's controversial budget plan, which Campbell <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/wp/2012/07/02/paul-ryan-vs-catholic-nuns-on-a-bus/" target="_hplink">called</a> "not Christian" and "immoral." While Campbell has disagreed with American Catholic bishops on several issues (she <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/she-the-people/post/nuns-on-the-bus-take-on-paul-ryan/2012/06/11/gJQAS3RdUV_blog.html" target="_hplink">told</a> <em>The Washington Post</em> in June that there's "a small cadre of bishops who are determined or feel called to politicizing our faith in a way that's extremely partisan and narrow"), she has also said she is "pro-life, all of life." Campbell won't offer an invocation or benediction at the convention, but she is scheduled to speak at part of its official schedule on Wednesday.
Rev. Gabriel Salguero
The Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, will offer the invocation at the DNC on Thursday. Salguero and his wife, Jeanette, are senior pastors of Lamb's Church in New York City. They represent two key voting groups that President Barack Obama and Democrats hope to win in November: Hispanics and evangelicals. The Republican National Convention also hosted a prominent Hispanic evangelical, the Rev. Sammy Rodriguez, president of National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. Pictured, Salguero, left, and his wife, Jeanette, speak at the Lamb's Manhattan Church of the Nazarene in New York.
Bishop Vashti McKenzie
Bishop Vashti McKenzie, the first woman presiding bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, is no stranger to the DNC and the Democratic Party. She offered an invocation at the 1996 DNC in Chicago, while earlier this summer, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke at the denomination's general conference. The AME church is the nation's oldest black denomination and has a membership of more than 2 million. It was founded in 1816 in Philadelphia after many Methodist congregations in the mid-Atlantic region broke away from white Methodist congregations. Pictured, President Barack Obama and McKenzie on stage during an Easter Prayer Breakfast on April 19, 2011, at the White House.
Metropolitan Nicholas, the bishop of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Detroit, opened the DNC with an invocation on Tuesday. The Democratic National Committee had originally asked Archbishop Demetrios of America, the archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, to do the invocation. Archbishop Demetrios initially offered to do the benediction at the Republication National Convention, but sent Metropolitan Methodios of Boston in his place. He was also was unable to attend the DNC and asked Metropolitan Nicholas to attend in his place. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, headquartered in New York, oversees 800 priests in 500 parishes throughout the U.S. and about 440,000 members.
According to <a href="http://www.pewforum.org/Christian/Mormon/mormons-in-america-politics-society-and-morality.aspx" target="_hplink">a recent Pew survey,</a> most Mormons tend to be conservative and are often Republicans. But in a year when the political lens has become focused on their faith largely in because of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Mormon Democrats are gathering in Charlotte to make their voices heard. LDS (Latter-day Saints) Dems, formed last October in Utah, and has grown to more than 2,000 members, kicked of a gathering of Mormon Democrats from across the nation at a hotel near the Charlotte convention site on Tuesday. Their keynote speaker was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is Mormon. Pictured, Reid (D-Nev), speaks to reporters.
The Rev. Derrick Harkins
Although he is not playing an official role the DNC's primetime schedule, the Rev. Derrick Harkins is playing a major role in the Democratic Party's faith efforts. Harkins, senior pastor of Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., was tapped to be the director of faith outreach for the Democratic National Committee in October and has been making the rounds in Charlotte. That includes leading a morning prayer gathering at the convention on Tuesday, where he called Democrats a party of values and faith. Harkins is on the board of the boards of the National Association of Evangelicals, Faith in Public Life and World Relief. In addition, he is part of the Circle of Protection, an ecumenical alliance of pastors and religious groups who have come out against federal budget cuts they say will hurt poor and vulnerable people.
Rabbi David Wolpe
Rabbi David Wolpe, the spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles who has been dubbed the most influential rabbi in America by <em>Newsweek</em>, will offer a benediction at the DNC on Wednesday. Volpe, who comes from Judaism's conservative tradition, runs the largest conservative temple west of Mississippi, and was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York 1987. He is also the author of seven books on Judaism.
While no Muslim is scheduled to offer an invocation or benediction at the DNC, that doesn't mean Muslims won't be present. According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, this year's DNC will have the most Muslim delegates in the convention's history. CAIR estimated the number of delegates to be more than 100, an increase from 43 Muslim and Arab-American delegates in 2008 and 25 in 2004. "The more than doubling of Muslim delegates" is "a sign of the American Muslim community's growing civic engagement and acceptance in the Democratic Party," said CAIR government affairs coordinator Robert McCaw in a press release. According to McCaw, there were "relatively few" Muslims at the Republican National Convention. In addition to Muslim delegates, the Bureau of Indigenous Muslims Affairs, a national Islamic organization that works on civic and religious issues, hosted its annual conference in Charlotte over Labor Day weekend to coincide with DNC events. The conference is not officially a part of the DNC, but thousands of Muslims attended. And on Thursday, the American Muslim Democratic Caucus plans to hold a press conference about Muslims at the DNC. It will be co-hosted by Rep. Keith Ellison (Minn.) and Rep. Andre Carson (Ind.). Both are Muslims. Pictured: Muslim youths pray during the New Horizons gathering on June 5, 2011, in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Jena Lee Nardella
Jena Lee Nardella, executive director of Blood: Water Mission, offered an invocation to open the DNC on Tuesday. Blood Water: Mission is a non-profit based in Nashville, Tenn., that works on battling the HIV/AIDS and water crises in sub-Saharan Africa. Nardella co-founded the organization with Jars of Clay, a popular Christian rock band, in 2004 when she was 22. While older evangelicals may sway Republican, younger ones such as those Nardella appeals to are up for grabs. Democrats' pick of Nardella signals their recognition of a need to appeal to the important democratic, which is part of what helped President Barack Obama win the election in 2008.