DENVER | The 2008 Democratic National Convention kicked off on Sunday with a first-ever interfaith gathering aimed at luring the devout to the party fold.
But the difficulties with such a strategy were apparent from the event's opening choir performance, which was interrupted repeatedly by pro-life activists, illustrating the tension between many religious voters, especially Catholics, and the firmly pro-choice party.
The speakers included leaders from an array of religious traditions, including Islam and Judaism, as well as top Democratic Party officials; notably, convention CEO Leah Daughtry and Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter Jr.
Ms. Daughtry, a minister with the House of the Lord Pentecostal Church in Washington, took issue with those who see contradictions between religion and Democrats.
"We didn't need to bring faith to the party. Faith was already here," she said. "Democrats have been and will continue to be people of faith, and millions of people of faith have been and will continue to be Democrats."
But a recent Pew Research Center survey showed that 68 percent of white evangelical Protestants support presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain, while only a quarter back Democratic hopeful Sen. Barack Obama. The same survey had black and Hispanic evangelicals hewing about 50 percent Republican, while a third line up with Democrats. Exit polls during the primaries showed that Mr. Obama's support among Catholics was also shaky.
The Obama campaign, however, has made it clear that the candidate plans to challenge Republicans for faith-based voters. Mr. Obama describes himself as a Christian and belongs to the United Church of Christ, a liberal Protestant denomination.
"Senator Obama is a committed Christian, and he believes that people of all faiths have an important place in American life," said Joshua Dubois, the Obama campaign´s director of religious affairs.
Perhaps the most contentious of the interfaith service's speakers was Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America. The society was named in 2007 as an unindicted co-conspirator by the Justice Department in its terrorism-financing case against the Holy Land Foundation. The trial ended in a mistrial last fall and has been scheduled anew for next month.
She noted that Muslims are helping combat terrorism by serving in the military and government. "It saddens me deeply that much evil is being done in the name of my religion," Ms. Mattson said. "Yet when we confront evil, we must make sure we do not ruin lives of innocent people in the process."
The Democratic Party made a grab for evangelical and Catholic voters earlier this month when it added language to its platform calling for taxpayer-funded efforts to reduce the number of abortions. The move earned praise from the Rev. Jim Wallis and other liberal-leaning religious figures, but met with skepticism from pro-life groups, who argue that the long-standing Democratic opposition to any legal barriers to abortion is a deal-breaker.
During Sunday's interfaith gathering, a man in a suit and tie jumped up during a pause in the music and yelled, "Obama supports the murder of children by abortion!" He was quickly drowned out by the crowd of about 1,000, and escorted from the theater by police officers.
A few minutes later, another man leapt to his feet and shouted, "Abortion is murder!" Shortly after, he was led from the venue, and a third man took to his feet and yelled, "Obama is a baby killer!" As he was being ushered from the theater, the crowd chanted, "Obama!"
Pentecostal Bishop Charles Blake also chided Democrats on the issue during his sermon, citing the "moral and spiritual pain at the lives of the unborn," and saying he and others support the party in spite of its abortion stance. But he also criticized those who "loudly proclaim their advocacy for the unborn, but refuse to acknowledge their responsibility and the responsibility of our nation to those who have been born."
Religion will again be featured during the four days of the convention´s main program as religious leaders deliver invocations and benedictions. Most of the speakers, however, are affiliated with liberal religious traditions and are unlikely to capture the attention of traditional Christian voters.
An exception was Cameron Strang, a young pro-life Republican, the founder of the evangelical Relevant magazine and son of Christian publisher Stephen Strang. Cameron Strang was originally slated to close the first night of the convention Monday by delivering the benediction.
Last week, however, Mr. Strang canceled the appearance, saying he was concerned that his participation would be viewed as an endorsement. He agreed to take on a lower-profile role by sitting on the panel of a convention caucus meeting on religion later in the week. He also said that he would change his political affiliation to independent.
"It wouldn´t be wise for me to be seen as picking a political side when I´ve consistently said both sides are right in some areas and wrong in some areas," said Mr. Strang on his blog.
Focus on the Family spokesman Tom Minnery said his organization would have been pleased to provide evangelical speakers from its Colorado Springs office 90 miles south of Denver, "but nobody asked." The absence of conservative Christians "suggests to me that this is just window dressing," he said.