NEW YORK — The 58-year-old man stepped to the microphone and spoke like a zealous Christian anxious to learn about carrying the Gospel to nonbelievers.
“We’re trying to understand these people. How do we reach out to them?” asked Wayne Reagan, 58, a retired Housing Authority official.
But Mr. Reagan was asking how to evangelize believers, specifically Christians, with the gospel of secularism.
Mr. Reagan, who is not religious, attended a conference Friday and Saturday at the City College of New York, called “Examining the Real Agenda of the Religious Far Right.” The event was sponsored by the New York Open Center, a holistic learning center, and by the People for the American Way Foundation.
Mr. Reagan’s question was one example of how liberals are making unprecedented efforts to understand, and even imitate, Christian conservatives. Another conference attendee asked a speaker how to talk to her Christian conservative relatives.
Since the presidential election, Democrats have discussed how to reach the “values voters,” who were one of President Bush’s largest voting blocs.
Some have said more effort is needed to understand the Christian right. Others, such as the openly homosexual Episcopal Bishop V. Gene Robinson, say liberals “have to take back [the] Scriptures” and articulate their own spirituality.
The conference on the religious right was conceived six months ago by Open Center co-founder Ralph White, who heard a discussion of “dominionism” on a political talk show. He didn’t know the meaning of the word, which refers to the belief — based on Genesis 1:26 and other biblical texts — that Christians should extend God’s sovereignty over the political sphere.
Mr. White denied that the City College conference was “a liberal attempt to do anything,” instead calling it “a generic attempt … to educate people about something that is distant and unknown to many of us.”
Some at the conference expressed hostility toward Christian conservatives. One attendee said during a question-and-answer period that she thought the Christian conservative movement is the embodiment of the Antichrist. Joan Bokaer, founder of TheocracyWatch, said conservative politicians have manipulated Christians to vote for them since the mid-1960s.
But some speakers addressed complex theological issues.
Chip Berlet talked about eschatology — theological interpretation of the “end times” — and the significant impact those views have on political involvement.
There was much talk about how the Christian right has built a political machine by keeping its religious beliefs under the radar and using “stealth” tactics, as Republican strategist and former Christian Coalition Director Ralph Reed once urged.
Jeffrey Sharlett, who runs a daily report on religion in the press called the Revealer, said liberals should be in, but not of, the Christian conservative movement.
“Instead of railing against the Christian right,” he said, liberals should be “going out and talking to them and writing stories about your experience with them.”