CHARLOTTE, N.C. — If you want to escape religion at the Democratic National Convention, there is only one place to go: the official Charlotte Convention Center prayer room.
Located above a row of vending machines on the building's second floor, the prayer room is a designated spiritual oasis amid a ceaseless churn of harried delegates, half-heard cellphone conversations and clattering laptop keyboards.
Mostly, the room is empty.
A dormitory-room-sized box made of album-thin white plastic panels and silver aluminum framing, the room contains 16 banquet chairs, which largely have remained unoccupied over the course of the week.
During a two-hour-plus stretch Thursday afternoon, the room's sole inhabitants were a newspaper advertorial insert, a promotional card for American Muslim Alliance Foundation policy seminars and, briefly, two delegates from North Dakota.
"I'm here to pray," said one of the delegates, who declined to give his name — and then spent most of his abbreviated time in the room conversing with his colleague.
Still, it's probably a mistake to read too much into the symbolism of the oft-empty prayer room.
Sure, Democrats squabbled over including the word "God" in their party platform and long have struggled to connect with evangelical voters — a June survey by the Pew Forum found that 35 percent of Americans view Democrats as friendly toward religion, while 54 percent felt the same way about Republicans.
But expressions of belief in and around the Charlotte convention are nearly as commonplace as President Obama buttons.
God is everywhere
In addition to a morning prayer gathering, DNC organizers staged two well-attended meetings of its Faith Council. As attendees shouted "Amen" and "Hallelujah," council head James Salt closed Wednesday's gathering by recalling the biblical decision of Solomon regarding the claims of two women to the same baby.
Barack Obama, Mr. Salt heavily implied, was the candidate in the race most like the mother ready to do anything to save the life of the child.
The Rev. Derrick Harkins, senior pastor at the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in the District and national director of faith and outreach for the party since October, told delegates at the first prayer gathering: "We begin every single morning of this 2012 convention in prayer because faith in God is not a strange concept to Democrats. It's woven into the fabric of who we are."
On Tuesday, Democratic delegates and politicians from 10 states could be found at the nearby St. Peter's Bliss Hall, a 161-year-old church that hosted Methodist, Lutheran and Catholic bishops and two screenings of the immigration-themed documentary film "Gospel Without Borders."
The next morning, the Coalition of African-American Pastors held a news conference to protest the Democratic National Committee's endorsement of same-sex marriage. On Wednesday evening, by contrast, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, Missouri Democrat, delivered a stem-winding, largely ad-libbed address to delegates at Time Warner Cable Arena, drawing on his background as a United Methodist pastor to defend Democratic Party ideals and call for Mr. Obama's re-election.
"No matter what, Mr. President, you continue to hope," Mr. Cleaver said to enthusiastic applause. "As long as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob sits on the throne of grace, hope on. Hope on. Hope on. We are people of hope, Mr. President. Hope on. Hope on. When everything else is gone, hope on."
Mixing it up outside
On the sidewalks outside the convention center, the scene reflected the state of religion in the Democratic Party: lots of faith, lots of disagreement.
A white-haired man with a Santa Claus beard carried a person-sized wooden cross. Another bearded man — looking like a missing member of rock band ZZ Top — was "playing guitar for Jesus."
A pair of pro-life activists propped up giant placards decorated with photos of aborted fetuses and lambasted passers-by through a portable loudspeaker system.
"In America, we are surrounded by enemies," the protester shouted, his words backed by soft church music. "The Democrat Party is wicked."
Nearby, Boston resident Jack Hoskinson leaned against a metal security fence, arguing with a man holding a handmade sign reading, "Without Jesus, America Would Have Never Been Formed."
"I'm not saying the framers [of the Constitution] weren't religious people," said Mr. Hoskinson, 23, who works for a Democratic superdelegate. "I'm just saying it's not in the founding documents."
As the argument continued, Mr. Hoskinson gestured toward passing pedestrians.
"Are all these people going to hell, too?" he asked. "That doesn't sound like a very nice God. You know in your heart that's messed up."
Mr. Hoskinson, who was wearing an Obama-themed T-shirt reading "vote," said he grew up Catholic.
"Really, all the more interesting arguments are out here on the street," he said.
At the nearby First Baptist Church, members of the Metrolina Baptist Association were taking a less-confrontational approach to proselytizing, offering smiles, snacks, water and religious pamphlets to passers-by, as well as protesters at the Occupy Charlotte campsite.
Teresa Roberson, a 50-year-old Charlotte resident, said some Democratic delegates had stopped to fill out cards making individual prayer requests — for the country, for Mr. Obama, for personal family and financial matters.
Earlier in the day, association director Bob Lowman said, a Muslim family had walked past.
"God bless you," Mr. Lowman told them.
"God bless you," a woman from the family replied. "And Allah bless you."
"We had another lady come by, and we gave her water and the Gospel of John," said Mr. Lowman, 51. "She said, 'Thank you.' I said, 'For the water?'
"She said, 'No. Thank you for not telling me I am going to hell.'"
Back at the convention center prayer room, a delegate who declined to give her name — she works for the federal government — entered, sat down and thumbed her smartphone.
"This is great, a quiet place, all I need," she said. "I was raised Catholic, but I don't practice the faith. God is God. That's it. The distraction of 'my God is better than your God' isn't good.
"God is where you find him or her. I came in here to get in touch with that."
The woman's phone buzzed. She returned to checking her email.
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
Patrick Hruby is an award-winning journalist who holds degrees from Georgetown and Northwestern. He also contributes to ESPN.com and The Atlantic Online, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter (@patrick_hruby) and contact him at PatrickHruby.net.
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