DENVER - The Democratic National Convention’s first-ever Faith in Action panels were heavy with calls for expanded social programs but were again vexed by pro-life demonstrators critical of the party’s stance on abortion.
According to panelists, religious voters should place at the top of their political agendas more government-funded health care, a higher minimum wage, better treatment for illegal immigrants, securing the vote for released felons, and more funding for arts and music programs at public schools.
“Poverty is an affront to God,” said the Rev. Jennifer Kottler of the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Coalition. “If we continue to let people fall behind, we do so at our peril, both our spiritual and economic peril. … We have to educate our faith communities.”
But Susan Brooks Thistlewaite of the Chicago Theological Seminary was interrupted repeatedly by two pro-life activists after she announced that “I’ve been a pastor for 35 years, and I’m in favor of choice.”
“I’m in favor of women having lots of choices. I’m proud our [Democratic] platform supports Roe v. Wade,” Mrs. Thistlewaite said.
“Does that little child have a choice?” shouted one activist before being led from the meeting room at the Denver Convention Center.
A preconvention interfaith gathering Sunday was similarly interrupted by abortion opponents denouncing the party’s pro-choice stance.
Mrs. Thistlewaite called for reducing “the need for abortions” by increasing public funding for pre- and postnatal care and universal health care for children, expanding parental leave, and increasing educational opportunities for young women.
“Republican rhetoric is empty. There’s no support for families,” Mrs. Thistlewaite said. “When Senator Obama is president, then we can say we are one people, one nation, and women are not alone.”
Former Rep. Tim Roemer of Indiana, who described himself as pro-life, called on fellow Democrats to find common ground with the pro-life vote by focusing on prevention, abstinence and adoption.
He cited a House bill that aims to reduce the abortion rate by 95 percent in the next 10 years. At the same time, he criticized Republicans for what he described as a policy of “attack, advertise and argue, and not doing anything to reduce the amount of abortions in this country.”
Organizers underscored the point with dozens of signs saying, “Pro Family, Pro-Obama.”
“We are unashamed of seeking the support of faith-based voters, and not just theoretical support, but their votes,” said Joshua Dubois, the Obama campaign’s national director of religious affairs.
Panelists credited Mr. Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, for his emphasis on recognizing religious voters and welcoming them to the party fold. The candidate drew praise for his proposal to build faith-based community and government partnerships.
John DiIulio, the first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives under President Bush, said he was “exceedingly encouraged” by Mr. Obama’s proposal and his recognition of the role played by churches in charity work.
He also put in a rare good word for Mr. Bush for “putting this on the national agenda and keeping it on the national agenda.”
The Rev. Otis Moss, senior pastor of the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland, warned churches about losing their way in pursuit of the almighty government grant.
“When we go to the White House or any aspect of government, getting a grant should not be the front side or at the head of the agenda, because if getting the grant is No. 1 on the agenda, then how can you be the conscience [of the nation]?” Mr. Moss said.
The Rev. Jim Wallis, the chief executive officer of Sojourners and moderator of the two panels, urged the religious to remain involved in public life.
“Let’s maintain our prophetic integrity, but let us also be involved in politics,” Mr. Wallis said.