What the Oprah-Obama Alliance Really Means

09/28/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

DENVER--In the generic meeting-rooms of the Colorado Convention Center, a revolution is taking place in the Democratic Party. The people of faith have arrived.

Every day has seen a panel or gathering or both of religious and spiritual leaders, some gathered together by Joshua DuBois, the Obama campaign's director of religious affairs, others convened by outside groups such as Faith in Public Life. Each gathering has the whiff of a "walk-into-a-bar" joke -- as in, "A rabbi, a priest and a minister walk into a bar..." -- a distinctly different scent than a gathering of GOP religious.

And it doesn't end with church-mosque-temple-synagogue crowd. Add in the unchurched but spiritual set, and you've got a negotiation of the higher power in politics unlike any ever tried before.

To the mainstream media, Oprah Winfrey, who will attend Barack Obama's acceptance speech tonight, is simply a very powerful celebrity, a pop-culture icon like a rock star or something. But to her viewers -- her followers, really -- Oprah is a priestess. First on the menu of her Web site, is a channel called "spirit." When she introduced Barack Obama on the campaign trail during primary season, she did it in oratory laced with religious references. In Des Moines, she spoke this way of making the choice to, for the first time, publicly endorse a presidential candidate: "I feel like I'm out of my pew."

Because of the diversity of the Democratic party, the Obama campaign's concerted outreach to what are called "faith voters" is not without risk. In the GOP, the religious faction have a broadly shared agenda, centering mostly on issues of sexuality and women's freedom. Among the leftward-leaning religious and spiritual types, you find a pretty consistent agenda on poverty, health care and the social contract, but wild divergence on reproductive freedom, same-sex marriage and how far to take faith values into the political arena. And then you have some of the religious types simply dismissed the "unchurched" believers -- the spiritual types -- as "secular", when they are anything but.

In the past, the spiritual types -- often the refugees of the church experience -- have stayed far from people in collars, yarmulkes and kufis, practicing a very individualized form of faith in an almost underground fashion. Now, thanks in no small part to Oprah Winfrey, spiritual leaders like Deepak Chopra and Marianne Williamson are part of the mainstream, with significant numbers of followers of their own, and a moral system that demands expression in policy, if not politics.

Yesterday, I attended a panel on "New Faith Voters" convened by the organization Faith in Public Life that truly blew my jaded mind. At one end of the spectrum sat Jim Wallis, the anti-abortion, centrist evangelical minister who founded Sojourners. Wallis is among those who sought to influence the Democratic party platform on the matter of abortion. (The platform language about reducing abortion did not go as far as Wallis would have liked.) On the opposite end of the spectrum sat Marianne Williamson, the spiritual teacher who is now featured on the Oprah & Friends XM radio channel.

Williamson left no doubt that she and her constituents have an agenda based in their own theology of love. The United States, Williamson said, needs to apologize to the world and the people of the world for the harm it has caused. The nation will not find the path to recovery, she said, until official mea culpas are issued in contrition for such sins as the oppression and killing of Native Americans, African-Americans and others -- for starters. Then she blamed the degradation of the environment on the early church for its claim of man's dominion over the earth.

Wallis, on the other hand, is looking for national redemption through the reduction of poverty and the weakening of the Democrats' pro-choice rhetoric.

At another, more practically-oriented panel today, convened under the auspices of the Obama campaign's Faith Council, an array of clergy addressed the challenges of staying on the correct side of the tax code when entering the political fray. Among the strategies suggested by DuBois is the faith-based house party, whereupon people of faith gather in someone's home for a fundraiser or get-out-the-vote effort.

It's easy to scoff at the surface absurdity of spirtualists and religionists negotiating anything, and I certainly find humor in the sight. But Obama really has done something here that hasn't been done before. Now, when somebody decides to host an evangelical yoga party, I'd like an invite, please.

Cross-posted from The Consortium Report, a project of The Media Consortium

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