How did the Democrats do? What did you think of the way that they incorporated faith into their convention? These have been the most frequent questions posed to me over the past few days. And they deserve honest answers.
The so-called Faith Forums in Denver attracted a lot of pre-convention attention. To their credit, convention planners did not turn the daily faith-gatherings into partisan rallies adorned in religious trappings. To be sure, speakers here and there used these venues to endorse Senator Obama and Senator Biden. However, most of the speakers in these sessions focused on pertinent, but sometimes difficult, questions about what is appropriate and what is not regarding religion on the campaign trail or in the White House. Appropriately, panelists reflected diversity in their opinions and suggestions.
So, look what happened. The Democrats adopted a smart strategy that undoubtedly helped their party.
From the platform in the plenary sessions of the convention, few more references to religion than usual were to be seen or heard. Indeed, most delegates who attended only general sessions of the convention likely did not notice any increased emphasis on religion on the part of convention leaders. Even when religious language was used, it was the vocabulary of a kind of American civil religion more than an elaboration of denominational doctrines or sectarian values from only a few segments of the diverse religious communities in the nation.
However, having determined no longer to allow Republicans to claim exclusive rights to an emphasis on religion, Obama-led Democrats provided space, encouragement, and assistance in programming for people wanting a more visible presence for religion in their national convention. These religion-oriented programs offered something for everybody in attendance and presented no tirades against people who do not embrace the beliefs of a particular religious tradition.
In a sense, everybody got what they wanted. Religion-based discussions were available in special venues for all who sought them while political discussions, with only a dash of religion in them, resounded from the main stage.
If there were an award for best practices on how to speak about religion in a political address, I would give it to Senator Joseph Biden. In a non-assuming but moving manner, the Democrats’ nominee for Vice President spoke eloquently of how his religious faith strengthened and sustained him in a time of horrific personal trials. But, Senator Biden related his personal experience in a matter-of-fact manner that informed listeners of his identity and values while not suggesting, even implicitly, that this was a reason to vote for him or that everybody in the room should follow his example.
And I would also be remiss if I did not compliment Senator Obama’s speech last night. The Interfaith Alliance has been urging both candidates to stop using their faith backgrounds as a source of division during this election. Last night Senator Obama delivered on that call. His speech touched on many religious themes, but he did so in an inclusive and non-sectarian fashion. He appealed to the American people to find common ground on difficult moral issues and to find healing on racial and gender fault lines. He talked about moral issues without being moralistic, and I hope this message will be echoed from pulpits, lecterns, and bemas across our diverse country.
Honestly, I must give the Democrats higher marks than I had anticipated would be possible. During this past week, they handled the relationship between politics and religion well. Stay tuned, though; it’s a long way until November and pitfalls are plentiful.