At the Democrats' party, a Pentecostal minister

July 19, 2008 6:50:49 PM PDT
The request befuddled Leah Daughtry. The experienced political hand in charge of planning next month's Democratic National Convention - a self-described "black chick from Brooklyn" and ordained Pentecostal minister who keeps a Bible in her purse - didn't know what to tell the atheists. Daughtry, 44, was preparing for an Aug. 24 interfaith service that will open the Democrats' gathering here - a first for a party that hasn't always gotten God. Before her was an angry letter from a secularist group that wanted to know whether atheists would be on the podium.

"Atheists speaking at an interfaith service ... does that work?" Daughtry asked this week. "I don't quite know. But they're part of the party, you treat them with respect. I'll give them an answer."

On a larger scale, it's what Daughtry and a growing number of Democrats of faith are setting out to do: hold together and grow their party by claiming ground on religion and values that Republicans have successfully mined for years.

The presumptive Democratic nominee, Sen. Barack Obama, has incorporated faith themes and outreach into his campaign since the primaries began. A new political action committee, Matthew 25, is running pro-Obama ads on Christian radio. "People of faith" will have a caucus of their own at the convention, just as blacks, Hispanics and military veterans do.

Such efforts come with challenges, including answering nonbelievers, Democrats uncomfortable with any mingling of church and state, and religious Americans at odds with Democratic positions on social issues.

"All Americans, all people, have values," said Daughtry, a fifth-generation minister. "For some of us, values come from faith. For others it comes from what your parents taught you, what your grandmother taught you on the porch in the summertime. These are values that make us Democrats. We all have them."

Daughtry, Howard Dean's chief of staff at the Democratic National Committee, was tapped last year as chief executive officer of the Democratic National Convention Committee. More accustomed to working behind the scenes, she has adopted a more public role that has taken her from speaking at a Denver synagogue to witnessing the installation of a Mormon church president in Salt Lake City.

"When Leah Daughtry walks in a room, nobody needs to underestimate her," said Burns Strider, who led religious outreach for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and is now an independent consultant. "At once she's a tough-minded political pro and at once she is a God-centered believer and follower of Christ. She marries those two personally very well and she understands how they interplay in the public square."

Growing up the oldest of four children, Daughtry was a "quiet organizer" who spent her time reading books or developing a seating chart for rides in the family car, said her father, the Rev. Herbert Daughtry.

Herbert Daughtry's father had converted the family to Pentecostalism, a fast-growing growing branch of evangelical Christianity that emphasizes the supernatural, including healing, prophesy and speaking in tongues. His House of the Lord Church, which grew into a small denomination, was at once strict about things like the length of women's skirts yet open, even in the 1930s, to ordaining women and biracial worship.

From his Brooklyn church, Herbert Daughtry immersed his family in the civil rights struggle. Responding to police violence, he helped start the National Black United Front, bringing together parties as varied as the Black Panthers and the Urban League. He espoused black liberation theology, presenting the Gospel as deliverance for the oppressed. It's the same belief system held by Obama's controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

At the same time, Herbert Daughtry weathered criticism in the black community for not sending his children to all-black colleges and for urging them to explore Europe instead of Africa. Heeding her father's words, Leah Daughtry earned a politics degree at Dartmouth and studied for a semester in France.

"My argument was, 'I can and will teach them African history,"' Herbert Daughtry said. "They will never have to worry about being comfortable in their own skin. I wanted to broaden their scope of knowledge."

Leah Daughtry has married faith and politics, holding positions in the Clinton-era Labor Department, working on the 1992 Democratic National Convention and heading her party's outreach to faith groups, Faith In Action. And she continues to lead her own House of the Lord Church of 20 or 30 people in Washington, D.C.

Daughtry considers it all "ministry - a way to give of yourself." Several of her party's positions, though, put her at odds with most evangelical Christians. That includes her support for abortion rights.

"Theologically, we believe that in the greatest decision of our entire lives - whether to follow God or not - God allows us to choose," she said. "If God is big enough to allow that choice, then who are we to dictate choices to other people? Your choices have consequences, but you should be allowed to make those choices."

Daughtry credited the party for changing the way it talks about abortion - "not just in terms of a woman's right to make her own health-care choices, but also in terms of our society's responsibility to make sure women have the resources that they need to make appropriate decisions."

Tony Campolo, a liberal evangelical author and pastor and member of the Democratic platform committee, said he and others hope to move the party toward stronger advocacy for reducing the number of abortions.

He declined to discuss specific proposals, but he mentioned ensuring that pregnant women are able to go on maternity leave without fear of losing their jobs, and making day care more accessible.

"If we are going to win over evangelicals, language that speaks to abortion reduction will be very necessary," Campolo said.

Daughtry believes the party already is making inroads with evangelical voters, particularly young ones sympathetic to Democratic positions on poverty and the environment.

But a survey released last week called that into question. Despite Obama's robust religious outreach, only about one-quarter of white evangelicals support him, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life - about the same number that supported Democrat John Kerry at this juncture four years ago.

As for those worried that Democrats are acting like Republicans when it comes to religion, Daughtry said: "The difference between us and the Republicans is, one, we don't claim a monopoly on God.

We don't try to be dogmatic about this or make it a litmus test. For us, values come from different places."

That will be reflected in the interfaith service - which may or may not include an address from an atheist but will be open to anyone regardless of belief or political party, Daughtry said.

"For me as person of faith who has made God first in her life," Daughtry said, "it is symbolically important that the first thing we're doing is coming together as people of faith to celebrate our faith traditions and to ask the blessings of God on us as we undertake this great civic responsibility."