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Commentary: Democrats finally getting religion on religion

  • Story Highlights
  • Democratic candidates will deal with issues of faith in forum broadcast Sunday
  • Martin: Outreach by Clinton, Obama should serve as an example
  • Martin: Political realm must understand the secular and theological worlds
  • CNN TV: "The Compassion Forum," a two-hour special, 8 p.m. Sunday
  • Next Article in Politics »
By Roland S. Martin
CNN Contributor
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Join Roland Martin for his weekly sound-off segment on CNN.com Live at 11:10 a.m. Wednesday. If you're passionate about the topic, he wants to hear from you.

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Roland S. Martin says it's time for the campaign debate to go beyond Iraq, illegal immigration and terrorism.

(CNN) -- Sweet Jesus! What has gotten into the Democratic Party when it comes to issues of faith?

On Sunday, CNN will broadcast the Compassion Forum, an event hosted by CNN's Campbell Brown and Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham. It will explore issues of faith and morality with Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

This is the second time the top Democratic candidates will deal with issues of faith. On June 4, CNN's Soledad O'Brien moderated a forum with the Rev. Jim Wallis' Sojourners Social Justice Ministry as host. That one featured Obama, Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards.

These forums should not be casually overlooked and blown off, because they represent a significant shift in attitude from previous Democratic presidential campaigns. Democrats, in the words of Sen. Joseph Biden after the Sojourners forum, acted more like agnostics -- other would say atheists -- when it came to issues of faith.

The Compassion Forum
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama face the hard questions on faith and politics.  Campbell Brown hosts a special two hours on CNN.
Sunday, 8 p.m. ET

For nearly 30 years, Republicans successfully used wedge issues like abortion and homosexuality to rally their base to those social causes and elect candidates who were willing to go to the mat when they came up. Their outreach efforts were strong, consistent and they delivered time and time again. And as long as Democrats were willing to ignore the ever-increasing concerns of people who tied their faith with public policy, the GOP would continue to clean up at the ballot box.

Yet the outreach efforts by Clinton and Obama should serve as an example to all Democratic officeholders that ignoring voters who feel strongly about their faith, and also public policy, will continue to lead to losses.

Sunday's forum, which will be held at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, will allow each candidate to speak for 40 minutes on various moral issues, including poverty, global AIDS, climate change and human rights.

These are all vital issues that we should want to hear our presidential candidates discuss at length, and it's time that our debates and discussions with the candidates went beyond the war in Iraq, illegal immigration and terrorism.

While on the surface it looks good for Democrats to embrace those in the faith world, there are some serious potential land mines they are going to have to confront.

I have always maintained that people of faith who are conservative need to move beyond the issues of abortion and homosexuality and broaden what are deemed faith issues. But the Democratic Party is going to have to do the opposite -- that is have some serious discussions as to how it's going to confront social issues and not ignore abortion and homosexuality.

For instance, I got an e-mail last week from several gay party activists who are disturbed that the Rev. James Meeks, founder and pastor of Salem Baptist Church, the second-largest church in Illinois, has endorsed Obama. Why?

Because Meeks opposes abortion and homosexuality. I know him well because I am a member of the same church.

In January, gay supporters of Obama were aghast that his campaign would allow gospel singer Donnie McClurkin to participate in a gospel tour around South Carolina, because he has discussed being a former homosexual who converted to being a heterosexual.

This is no different from gay activists being less than thrilled to see Sen. Hillary Clinton touting the endorsement of the Rev. Harold Mayberry, a Bay Area pastor who opposes gay marriage.

And when several gay bloggers heard that President Bush's spiritual adviser, the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, pastor of Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas -- the largest UMC congregation in the country -- was backing Obama, they also cited his opposition to homosexuality, forcing the campaign to say he would in no way be campaigning on behalf of the candidate. Thus far, they have remained true to that, not making Caldwell available on behalf of the campaign since that endorsement came down three months ago.

In talking with officials from the Obama and Clinton campaigns, I jokingly said that if they were both trying to use only the black pastors who would pass muster by their gay and pro-choice supporters, they might be able to find two in the whole country!

If the Democratic Party is serious about fostering a relationship with the faith community, they are going to have to come to grips with the fact that there are Democrats of faith who are pro-life and against gay marriage, but who are in agreement on other social issues such as the response to the rapid rise of HIV/AIDS and eradicating poverty.

Gay rights and pro-choice activists are clearly not going to back down from advancing their agenda, but they can be assured that people of faith are not going to be silent for the sake of a political party.

What is clear is that in the political realm, there must be an understanding of the secular and theological worlds. And there are clear examples when folks who operate in the secular world want to apply their standards to those in the theological world, and vice versa.

Is there room for people with opposing views on various issues to support either Obama or Clinton? Absolutely. But if either campaign is hell-bent on silencing their faith supporters because of such a disagreement, they risk alienating them, thus depriving the party of a broader constituency to take back the White House.

In other words, ignore the churchgoing folks and you don't stand a prayer of winning.

Roland S. Martin is a nationally award-winning journalist and CNN contributor. Martin is studying to receive his master's degree in Christian communications at Louisiana Baptist University. You can read more of his columns at http://www.rolandsmartin.com/.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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