09/05/2012 04:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Religion and Religious Freedom at the 2012 DNC: Day 1

I have long criticized politicians who use religion as a political tool and religious leaders who preach partisan politics from the pulpit. But those abuses of religion are not synonymous with diverse faith groups organizing around a particular issue of concern and advocating for a particular action to be taken on that issue.

Yesterday, as the 2012 Democratic National Convention got underway, I sat in on a number of sessions on issues around which different religious traditions are lining up during this election cycle. Conversations about the way in which religious values interact with basic civil values are extremely beneficial to the common good. Thus, I found it exciting, as well as interesting, to listen to discussions of a variety of issues important to Jews, Muslims and Christians. And what I saw and heard yesterday reminds me of how invigorating such discussions can be and how differing points of view can exist even within the same political party -- and of course within our nation -- and provide enlightenment.

I am attending the DNC in my capacity as the host of State of Belief radio and I had the opportunity to interview several notable opinion leaders and political leaders. I spoke with a true hero of mine, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) who said it is his hope and prayer that religion is not a major factor in any campaigning. He goes on to say that we may need to fight for religious freedom during this campaign.

I also spoke with Rep. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who believes religion will play a role in both the campaign and the convention because we are very religious as a nation.

Representatives of several constituencies also took the time to speak with me about the issues important to their diverse bases and how they perceive the election. Alan van Capelle of Bend the Arc and Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street spoke about the myths and realities of the Jewish vote. The takeaway is that regardless of the speculation that the Jewish vote might shift toward Gov. Romney, the data indicates that the Jewish community is still solidly in the Democratic Party camp. Dr. James Zogby of the Arab American Institute spoke with me after the release of AAI's latest poll on American attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The poll results led them to believe there has been a lack of leadership on the part of President Obama in shaping the opinions of the American public, which are more malleable than ever before on that issue. Rev. Harry Knox of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and I discussed the role religion has played, and will continue to play in the campaign. We will be posting these interviews at throughout the week.

What stayed with me the most from yesterday's interviews was that everyone took for granted that religion would play a major role in the election and assumed that regardless of who the candidates were, you would still see the Christian evangelicals voting just as they had always voted, you'd see Jewish community voting as they had always voted and so on. I ask a lot of people about the importance of religious liberty in this election and whether or not threats to a change in an understanding of what religious liberty means would be at stake. Here's what I found disturbing: Among the people I talked to yesterday, it was almost equally divided in terms of one group saying yes I think religious liberty can be and would be affected by the outcome of the election and the other half saying religious liberty is such an absolute value in our nation that it does not matter who gets elected, we're going to be alright. In a few instances I challenged that notion (and they looked surprised when I did), asserting there is a difference in continuing to use the term "religious liberty" but changing the definition, and using it as simply a description of what's in the First Amendment to the Constitution. In several instances those I spoke to actually had not thought about it that way. I worry that thought leaders in our nation are missing what could be happening in this whole initiative to change the meaning of what the First Amendment guarantees us.