Interfaith and no faith

interfaithOne of the things that annoys me about journalists' lack of institutional memory is the way religious activism in politics is constantly being rediscovered. Over and over. Year after year. Usually this is displayed with the quadrennial discussions of the shocking rise of religious activism in the Grand Old Party. But just four short years after the mainstream media meltdown over values voters, we're seeing lots of discussion of religious movement in the Democratic Party.

The fact is that religious liberals have been active for a long time. For a depressing but provocative look at the declining influence of mainline Protestantism, check out Jody Bottum's essay in First Things. But the religious left didn't just crop up in the last four years. Jim Wallis is not new to the political scene. He started Sojourners in 1971. It would be nice if all the coverage of the "new" religious left had some historical perspective.

Anyway, the Democratic National Convention is just around the corner and there's a ton of religious news coming out of it. We've looked at the rash of coverage of its organizer, the Rev. Leah Daughtry. She put together an interfaith service to kick off the convention.

Democrats are clearly reaching out to their religious voters more this year and it's nice to see the media covering so much of it. They have covered the ups and downs of organizing a religious service for a diverse political group. Some reports are better than others. When one clergy member was disinvited, the Rocky Mountain News printed this cheesily overwritten report:

Fidel "Butch" Montoya is a forgiving soul, being a man of the cloth.

But that doesn't mean he can't get upset. And he is upset -- at the Barack Obama campaign and the Democratic National Convention Committee. So upset, he's looking at supporting Obama's rival, Republican John McCain.

"They embarrassed me," he said Wednesday.

Montoya is a Pentecostal minister and founder of the H.S. Power and Light Latino faith-based initiative in Denver. He was asked more than two weeks ago by none other than Democratic National Convention Committee Chief Executive Officer Leah Daughtry to be one of four representatives to the Democrats' Interfaith Gathering to kick off the convention.

Then, abruptly last week Daughtry called Montoya to disinvite him. Montoya said Daughtry told him the DNCC had vetted him and concluded that he had enough "controversy" in his background to warrant being removed.

Other controversies have been better reported. When Ronald Aronson wrote at The Huffington Post about secularists wanting to be included in the interfaith service, one mainstream reporter for the Colorado Springs Gazette picked up on the story:

The interfaith service scheduled to take place at the Democratic National Convention's Aug. 24 in Denver is supposed to be about unity.

But to a Washington, D.C., coalition that supports nontheistic views, it's about division.

The Secular Coalition Group, a lobbying organization for church-and-state separation, is pushing to get an atheist on the speaker list, and contends the service is divisive because it alienates nonreligious Democrats at a time when the party needs to unite to support the presumptive nominee, Sen. Barack Obama.

"We can all hold different beliefs," said the group's executive director, Lori Lipman Brown, "but we can still come together as patriotic Americans."

Reporter Mark Barna speaks with a variety of groups that were not invited to participate:

Becky Hale, a founder of the atheist group Freethinkers of Colorado Springs, said the service discriminates against nonbelieving Democrats.

"By reaching out to people of faith," Hale said, "they have shown the back of their hand to those who do not believe."

Unfortunately, the article didn't include any defense of holding an interfaith service without secularists. It may not seem like a significant story, but the secularist and religious perspective on this event explains a great deal about the specific challenges the Democratic Party has with its religious outreach. The media have spent so much time focusing on religion and the right, they don't seem to have a vocabulary for explaining or analyzing what's going on here. Hopefully this will improve over the rest of the campaign cycle -- and hopefully journalists won't ignore the topic until the next campaign season.

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