DENVER — In an election campaign where their presidential nominee, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, has disavowed his longtime pastor and fought rumors he is Muslim, Democrats chose to open the official program of their national convention yesterday with an unsparing discussion on religion and politics.
The interfaith gathering at the Colorado Convention Center included readings from the Torah, the Sutra Nipata, the Quran and the Bible as religious leaders from several faiths challenged Democrats to honor and respect their differences while cherishing the values they have in common.
"That's the heart and soul, right there," said Albert "Lono" Lyman, an alternate delegate from Hawai'i, who says there is a place for faith in politics.
Lyman, who serves on the national platform committee, said he and his wife were surprised before the state's caucuses in February when they learned from a friend that members of his evangelical church planned to vote for Obama.
'tip of the iceberg'
Evangelical Christians have trended politically toward Republicans, and Lyman said the anecdote, for him, was positive for the Illinois senator.
"It's the tip of the iceberg for what I think could be going on," he said.
Chuck Freedman, a delegate and a coordinator for Obama's campaign in Hawai'i, said the party's religious and ethnic diversity is part of its strength.
"There's sort of a faith to that. You have to believe it, and then you have to act on it," he said. "For us to come together, whether it's at a meeting like this, or at an Asian and Pacific islander meeting, or at the big convention, and just get a good swallow of what that diversity is.
"You can see it. You can feel it. It's palpable," he said.
Obama, who was born in Hawai'i and graduated from Punahou School, broke with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright after Wright made several controversial statements about the United States' culpability for the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the spread of the HIV virus.
Obama's campaign has also fought Internet-fueled rumors that he is a Muslim. The senator himself clarified that, if elected, he would take the oath of office on a Bible, not a Quran.
At the interfaith gathering, the Rev. Leah Daughtry, the chief executive officer of the national convention, chided political commentators who have said the party has to reach out more to people of faith.
"These values of fairness, opportunity, inclusion, responsibility and respect are central to my faith. And they are also central to my party," said Daughtry, a pastor at the House of the Lord Pentecostal Church in Washington, D.C.
"So while my party may not be perfect, it is perfect for me."
Some of the speakers also diverged from the party line. Bishop Charles Blake, of the Church of God in Christ, asked whether it was time to resist the party's abortion rights stand in favor of a pro-life position. (Three anti-abortion protesters were removed from the audience after disrupting the choir at the start of the event.)
The Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, urged freedom of choice in education.
Sister Helen Prejean, an anti-death-penalty activist and the author of "Dead Man Walking," received a standing ovation after calling for the creation of a peace academy, non-violent conflict resolution education in schools, a shift from defense spending to social programs, and a government apology for the treatment of American Indians.
"They let us be free to speak our minds today," Prejean said.
Among the most compelling remarks, however, were those from Ingrid Mattson, the president of the Islamic Society of North America. She said she had been asked in whispers by Muslims abroad about how Muslims have been treated in the United States since the 2001 terrorist attacks.
While there is prejudice, Mattson said, there is also tolerance. She recognized other religious leaders who have stood up for Muslims.
"This is still the best place in the world to practice our faith," she said.