Regular listeners of the show know that we work hard to be non-partisan, but at the same time, when issues of importance to us are co-opted for political purposes, that’s something we need to take a look at. That’s why Rev. Dr. Derrick Harkins, the Democratic National Committee’s national director of Faith Outreach, is on the show this week. With the special attention some on the right are paying to African American faith communities, we wanted to hear from Rev. Harkins about what he’s doing to counter those efforts.
RUSH TRANSCRIPT: Rev. Dr. Derrick Harkins, Democratic National Committee Director of Faith Outreach[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: Welcome back to State of Belief Radio, I’m Welton Gaddy.
Our focus on this week’s show is not picking a winner in November’s election. Rather, it’s the concern that religious beliefs and allegiances are being manipulated for a political end. That kind of thing is always on our radar screen, and you better believe it’s going to stay on our radar screen during this next conversation. It’s not something we want to see happening on either side of the aisle.
Joining me right now is DNC Religious Outreach Director, the Rev. Derrick Harkins. Rev. Harkins, welcome to State of Belief Radio.[REV. DR. DERRICK HARKINS, GUEST]: It’s good to be with you. [WG]: Derrick, the two issues that we’re dealing with on this week’s show are: first, the perception in some quarters that the president, and maybe the party in general, are taking the African-American vote as a given; and the second issue is a concerted effort on the part of the opposing party to peel away as much of that vote as possible, and doing it at least in part through churches and other religious organizations. So I want to start with the last part: how concerned are you with religion being manipulated to influence electoral politics? [DH]: Well, that’s an important question, and in my role I’m honored and privileged to have a chance to meet with and talk with faith leaders across the spectrum, across the country on a regular basis – and the good thing that I’m hearing in relation, especially, to the issue as it’s most recently arisen as it relates to, purportedly, some objection on the part of some leaders, especially within the African-American church quarters regarding the president’s stand on marriage equality. I’m very pleased to be able to say that the overwhelming number of individuals that I’ve spoken with over the course of, now, several months have expressed significant and profound and distinct support for our president and for his reelection bid. Many of those individuals have been able to say – even if they have a different skew on this issue by way of their theology, have been able to say – the larger set of concerns and larger set of issues are so important that they certainly understand the plausibility of not agreeing with somebody about something, but at the same time moving in the same direction together, that’s number one. But the good news as well is that I think a lot of individuals have seen that there’s a much larger and more important issue of civil rights that’s been now introduced into this discussion, and I think, therefore, that those currents in some respects have already changed; polling has shown that. And so I’d say that when you see reports that there’s a maelstrom of dissent – at very best you’ve got people who probably were not supportive of this administration at all in the first place, who now simply have been given a platform. And often times I would only ask the question, you know, like often its said: “Follow the money,” I’d only ask the question: “Well, where is the financing coming from?” for some of that amplification. And are the people who are backing these efforts on the part of some of these clergy more interested in driving a wedge – using religion to drive that wedge – and therefore just on its face how wrong and unethical that is. [WG]: So are you consciously pushing back against what we’re seeing there, and I guess what goes with that are: what efforts are you making to connect with faith communities around progressive issues? [DH]: Sure, well first I’d say instead of – well, pushing back, I’d say what I’m much more committed to doing is making sure people know that the president has taken a very principled and clear stand around the issue of equality, and he sees that as part of the much larger conversation of equality across the spectrum; and certainly, as I’ve said before, civil enfranchisement and civil rights. So I daresay that it’s important for people to know clearly what the president has espoused – and by the way, it’s important to also know that in his conversation around this issue, he’s made it ever so clear that he has respect in regard for religious liberty, and is not seeking by any stretch to impose or impinge upon anyone’s religious practice. I think that’s important. So it really takes the teeth out of the argument that somehow, that this president is a foe of or anti-religion or anti-religious institutions; it’s just not true. And so we’re trying our best to make sure – in my capacity, we meet with faith leaders as well as faith constituencies, be they churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, etc., and help them to understand, A, what the advancements of this administration have been, and how they really relate to the concerns and values that are so often expressed within faith communities. [WG]: Derrick, you and I’ve talked about this, in fact talked about it a long time before you were in this position, as co-fellow ministers. What are the steps that you take to ensure that this same kind of manipulation of religion doesn’t happen in the progressive community, where people get excited and cross the line between religion and government in reaching out to faith communities? [DH]: One of the things that we’ve really been committed to doing – and one of my responsibilities in this capacity – is capacity-building around making sure that people can engage around issues. And I think a lot time people need to remember that there’s no proscription against – there’s no prohibition against – faith comminutes being committed to and involved in advocacy around issues. The more or less singular issue, as it relates to IRS codes etc., is particular partisan endorsement of candidates. So we tell individuals all the time that you can have a very robust and significant part in this conversation, although the one area that obviously is a distinction is the specific endorsement of partisan candidates. And so therefore, we try to make sure that we facilitate – by the information that we give around these issues that we make available to people – that they can be a viable part of this conversation and still operate within that framework. And I think, to be honest with you, I don’t think that the prohibition against partisan involvement is a negative thing; I think it really gives us a much wider and much more viable swath. It gives us sort of guaranteed legitimacy – now I’m wearing my hat as a pastor, certainly not as a part of the Democratic National Committee, because obviously that is fully partisan – but I’d say in the context of being a faith leader for one to be able to vigorously advocate around given issues, and to do that without being beholden to one particular candidate, one particular party, puts us in a much more strong position. So believe it or not, that’s the kind of capacity that we try to facilitate and build. We’re much more interested in making sure that faith communities and faith leaders and members of faith communities can engage and express themselves viably than we are just, sort of, plastering our partisan billboard over things. [WG]: You know, you said that in a really good way, and I know you well enough to know that part of the reason for that is that you care about religion and don’t want to compromise the authority and the power and inspiration of religion – and I appreciate that. I want to ask you – I don’t get this, I just will admit it upfront – I did two national television programs last week, and they asked me this question and I answered it, but I shook my head: what about the falling number of Americans who recognize the president’s religion as Christianity? I mean, how important is that, what’s going on, can it be countered? [DH]: Well you know, it’s an interesting question because I think the first thing that one has to disassemble is the idea: if the president were of any other faith tradition, that somehow that that would be an inherent negative; and I think that that’s almost the deeper symptomatic issue that I think American culture and society has to contend with, number one. And I think that that would be the case regardless as to whom we were talking about in the Oval Office. But secondly, I think the fact that the president has made it profoundly clear innumerable numbers of times that he is a professing Christian – I’ve heard him not only give speeches and in direct conversation, but I’ve heard him really speak about that in very clear and unadulterated terms – and I think the fact that you have people who by way of an orchestrated and intentional way are seeking to disparage the president in regards to his faith is symptomatic of something even worse than just, kind of, politically, trying to hamper him. I think it’s saying something unfortunate about our society that one can be seen as “other” or a threat if they are a part of a given, a different, religious tradition than what is seen as the majority. In other words, if they’re not seen as a mainstream Christian – somehow that represent a threat to American society. That’s unfortunate. So, you know, that’s – I should say kind of challenge and problem one; and then the president is emphatically clear about what his faith is, he’s said it in innumerable ways, and I think again, you know, I think any person is due being taken at their word. [WG]: Derrick, another guest on the show today talked about the number of – and he was talking about African-American voters, potential voters – the number of African-American potential voters that are not registered to vote. Does the Faith Outreach Office work in voter registration? [DH]: Profoundly so. In fact I’ll say this: we have made it a point – and in the first, sort of, foray – I’ve been with the Democratic National Committee in this capacity now since the end of last summer, almost a year ago – and our first numbers of months were around, sort of, getting in position to address the more than thirty efforts – meaning thirty out of fifty states – where voter suppression has either been offered up and now placed in law by the state legislatures, or is being debated even as we speak. So we knew that this was going to be a critical and crucial concern; and houses of worship, faith communities – you couldn’t think of a better place to make sure: A, the information around this is disseminated, and then B, action in regards to this is engaged. So we’ve been very much committed to that. We’ve got a voter protection arm of the DNC that’s really aimed at educating, first and foremost, around these issues, and making sure that people understand: A, what they need in order to be registered, where they need to go and how they need to be able to engage. We’ve got – at the campaign website, we’ve got resources that are available and accessible to people in a very easy way, for them to simply plug in their zip codes. And we know that not everybody is necessarily web-savvy, etc., so we’re making sure that our field op people on the ground are doing that. So when we go into, for example, when we go into a church, once again this may seem hard to believe to some people, first and foremost – I mean, aside from espousing the particularities of the president as a political candidate – we want to make sure people are engaged and able to vote. So that’s really job one. So we’re very committed to that, and I’ll say that in a number of those states where the issue has really been egregious, it’s egregious across the country, but in Florida, in Pennsylvania, in Ohio we’ve been really committed to this – and I think we’re going to, hopefully, see some solid results in terms of really mobilizing people between now and November. [WG]: I don’t really have time for another question, but I’m going to ask it anyway – so give me a short answer. I know it’s an uphill climb in the media to shatter the religious=conservative framing. Are you optimistic that can be changed? [DH]: I am, because I think that there are a lot of voices there that – not unlike yourself – who show that progressive and thoughtful individuals are very much speaking the language of faith; and we’ve got a wonderful and growing coalition of people across the spectrum of the faith community who are very much a part of that. So we’ve just got to keep plugging at that and outlast, outshine and outdistance the falsities coming from the other side. [WG]: I’ve been talking with the Rev. Derrick Harkins, who’s the head of the DNC Office of Religious Outreach. Rev. Harkins, I know we came to you at the last minute, and I really do appreciate you joining us today for an insightful interview on State of Belief Radio. [DH]: Thank you so much, Welton, and the best to you and your audience.
State of Belief is based on the proposition that religion has a positive and healing role to play in the life of the nation. The show explains and explores that role by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America – the most religiously diverse country in the world – while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.
Each week, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy offers listeners critical analysis of the news of religion and politics, and seeks to provide listeners with an understanding and appreciation of religious liberty. Rev. Gaddy tackles politics with the firm belief that the best way to secure freedom for religion in America is to secure freedom from religion. State of Belief illustrates how the Religious Right is wrong – wrong for America and bad for religion.
Through interviews with celebrities and newsmakers and field reports from around the country, State of Belief explores the intersection of religion with politics, culture, media, and activism, and promotes diverse religious voices in a religiously pluralistic world.
Author of more than 20 books, including First Freedom First: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy leads the national non-partisan grassroots and educational organization Interfaith Alliance and serves as Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana.
In addition to being a prolific writer, Dr. Gaddy hosts the weekly State of Belief radio program, where he explores the role of religion in the life of the nation by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America, while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.
Dr. Gaddy provides regular commentary to the national media on issues relating to religion and politics. He has appeared on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show and Hardball, NBC’s Nightly News and Dateline, PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly and The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, ABC’s World News, and CNN’s American Morning. Former host of Morally Speaking on NBC affiliate KTVE in Monroe, Louisiana, Dr. Gaddy is a regular contributor to mainstream and religious news outlets.
While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Dr. Gaddy emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is a past president of the Alliance of Baptists and has been a 20-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance and member of the World Economic Forum’s Council of 100. Rev. Gaddy currently serves on the White House task force on the reform of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), Dr. Gaddy served in many SBC leadership roles including as a member of the convention’s Executive Committee from 1980-84 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-77.
Dr. Gaddy received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Jackson, Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.