BOSTON – Democrats can be people of faith, too. They can pray out loud, they can sing hymns and invoke God's name in their speeches. They can even agree to disagree with their partisan pals on hot button issues like gay marriage (search) and abortion (search).
And they say religion is not solely the domain of Republicans.
"It's not true – the media may be the last group to figure that out – but it's not the case," said Jim Wallis, a Christian activist for Call to Renewal (search). Wallis was one of several speakers at a "People of Faith" luncheon sponsored by the Democratic National Convention (search) in Boston on Wednesday.
"Our faith has been stolen and it's time to take it back," he added.
The ballroom at the Sheraton Boston Hotel on Wednesday was filled with representatives from the Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths, including Evangelicals and Baptists, who said it was okay to mix politics and religion in an effort to fulfill long-standing goals of eradicating poverty and taking care of the most needy Americans.
Still, even attendees at the event admitted that the caucus was a novelty.
"This is the first time in the history of the Democratic Party that we made space to come together as people of faith," said Leah Daughtry, pastor of the House of the Lord Church in Washington, D.C., and chief of staff of the Democratic National Committee.
Daughtry, a fifth generation black minister whose family has been preachers since the days of slavery, said the gathering in Wednesday was in part, there "to show that we can be people of faith and Democrats at the same time. We can reconcile the two."
A 2003 poll released by the Pew Center for People and Religion (search) found that those surveyed who went to a religious service more than twice weekly were 63 percent more likely to vote Republican, while 37 percent vote Democrat. On the flip side, 62 percent of people who attended a service only once a year or not at all were more likely to vote Democratic, while 38 percent go Republican.
Analysts have said that religious Americans are typically drawn to the GOP's agenda on social issues. In general, Republicans oppose gay marriage and abortion, positions many faiths also profess. On the other hand, Democrats are associated with pro-choice, pro-gay causes as well as interpreting the separation of church and state (search) as keeping prayer out of public schools and religious iconography off of government property.
Religious Democrats at Wednesday's event said they can succeed from within the Democratic Party because, aside from moral issues hotly debated in the United States, Democrats care more than Republicans about issues of social justice.
"When it comes to the issues we care about, it's more than gay marriage or abortion," said Wallis.
"There are some of those issues we may disagree with, but we have to put these differences aside to let justice roll," said Carl Schultz, interim senior minister at the Old South Church in Boston, which had later that day hosted a summit to address poverty and hunger.
Rev. Nathan Wilson of the Disciples of Christ said too often the "Christian Right" focuses on the "sanctity of life" in the womb, but not on the whole of the life after birth. Wilson said he is pro-life, but wants the debate to extend to improving the quality of life for humanity, and is willing to engage abortion opponents and supporters from all faiths so that they can move on.
"I think you have to focus on bigger, broader, issues," he said.
But joining the Democratic Party means religious people must tolerate positions inherently antithetical to their supposed beliefs, said Steven Waldman, founder and editor of Beliefnet.com., a religious news Web site. Waldman said Democrats "clearly have watered down the spiritual dimension of their views" on religion, and he suggested that recent polls and Bush's strong showing over Vice President Al Gore among white Christians in the 2000 presidential election should be a wake up call for the party.
"Democrats are clearly extremely frustrated by the idea that religion is equated with conservatives," said Waldman. "And they're flailing around, trying to figure out what to do about it. The Democrats know they have to be more welcoming."
Wilson said he is a Democrat because he feels his mission, as guided by Biblical scripture, is to help the "least among us," or the disadvantaged among humanity. "I don't see that in the Republican Party. I see a real emphasis on individualism and 'I'm going to get all I can for me.'"
He added that he doesn't think religious Democrats need to hide their religious bona fides.
"I don’t think we are relegated to the back room," Wilson said, "and I think it’s a misconception, because more and more increasingly, Democrats are in fact embracing religious issues."