Wednesday, September 1, 2004

NEW YORK — Religious ideas and figures are seldom on display during the prime-time moments of the Republican convention, but faith talk is abundant all over Manhattan.

At a “faith, family and freedom rally” at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel sponsored by the Bush-Cheney campaign, the speakers exhorted 1,000 listeners to get out the vote under a banner that read: “President Bush Shares Our Values.”

“The press beats up on you like there’s something wrong with faith, family and freedom; like the basics of society are askew and they should not be projected,” said Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican and a Roman Catholic. “This is where the mainstream of America is.”

Several similar events are planned through the rest of the week, often with blessings from the nation’s top Republicans. Among the prominent Republicans at the Waldorf were Tim Goeglein and Matt Smith of the White House Office of Public Liaison.

This morning, former Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma will hold a prayer breakfast for 700 people at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center with White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. as the speaker.

Tomorrow morning, the RNC is staging a “Catholic outreach event” at the Westin Times Square featuring party Chairman Ed Gillespie and columnist Peggy Noonan.

And religion did surface pointedly during the convention last night with Sen. Elizabeth Dole’s citation of Jesus in her defense of freedom of religion.

“Two thousand years ago, a man said, ‘I have come to give life and to give it in full.’ In America, I have the freedom to call that man Lord, and I do,” said Mrs. Dole, North Carolina Republican, citing John 10:10.

She said Republicans understand that right must be protected.

“The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. The right to worship God isn’t something Republicans invented, but it is something Republicans will defend,” she said.

The convention is rung about with religious groups, ranging from Falun Gong demonstrators on sidewalks all over the city to services at the Upper West Side Riverside Church that have been a magnet for political liberals.

At Sunday’s reception at the Chelsea Piers by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a bevy of visiting members of Congress were toasted for their friendship with Israel.

On Monday morning, two Colorado film producers premiered “George W. Bush: Faith in the White House,” a laudatory 70-minute video about the president to be distributed in 300,000 churches to persuade Christian voters that Mr. Bush is their man.

“This is another viewpoint on President Bush,” producer David Balsiger said at a press conference. “It’s a side we wanted people to see. The religious voter feels more comfortable sleeping at night knowing our president prays, reads Scripture, is not hesitant to share his faith and is not hesitant to pray with world leaders. This is the sort of behind-the-scenes things he does.”

Narrated by Janet Parshall, who hosts a talk show on local radio station WAVA-FM, the film cost $300,000 and is being marketed to delegates as an answer to Michael Moore’s anti-Bush documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11.”

“Our ‘Bush Faith’ show has 18 proponent interviewees on Bush’s faith and comments from 18 liberal anti-Bush spokespersons,” Mr. Balsiger said. “Moore has no one in his film giving opposing views.”

Opposing views could be found in a full-page ad in Monday’s New York Times, sponsored by the Washington-based Sojourners magazine.

Underneath a headline that read, “God is not a Republican. Or a Democrat,” were signatures by 40 religious leaders; primarily liberal Catholics and mainline Protestants with a smattering of evangelical Protestants.

The ad got plenty of air time during yesterday’s panel at WNET Channel 13 TV on the ‘God gap’ in presidential politics where speakers agreed Democrats are lagging badly behind Republicans on the faith front.

“Only fairly late in the election cycle are progressive folks trying to get the message out,” said Sean Casey, an ethics professor at Wesley Theological Seminary in the District. “Now they are having to resort to full-page ads. I don’t know if they will be successful.”

John Podesta, a Roman Catholic and White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration, said savvy voters will eventually choose Democratic values over Republican rhetoric.

“What Democrats need to do to succeed is to be authentic first and foremost,” he said. “It doesn’t help a candidate to throw in a few quotes from the Bible if it doesn’t mean anything to them. What they need to show is they have a core set of moral beliefs that will take the country in a particular direction.”

All agreed that Republicans are saying little about religion during prime time, other than tossing in a few Jewish, Muslim and Christian representatives for some brief remarks.

“Max [Lucado] is not a bomb thrower,” said Mr. Casey, referring to the Austin, Texas, pastor who gave Monday night’s closing prayer. “He was not going to throw red meat. Organized religion is at the periphery of this convention.”

But Richard Cizik, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said the Republicans would be criticized if religion were front and center.

“It’s purposeful,” he said of the downplaying of faith at the convention. “The Republican Party is already cast as being captive of the religious right so why aggravate it?”

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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