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Who will bless the Democrats?

DEMOCRATS, lots of them, are coming to town, and not everyone is happy. Some are worried about getting to and from work, shopping, and entertainment, and others, more fearful of terrorists than traffic, will get out of town. I am worried about God, more specifically about who will ask that God's grace touch these delegates? Who can we expect to see offering invocations and benedictions for Democrats?

Both parties should have little trouble finding friendly rabbis and imams. George Bush and John Kerry are both friends of Israel, and both want to make it clear that they are not into any sort of religious war. Bush will have no trouble with evangelical Protestants, and Catholic clerics are falling over one another as they rally to his cause.

But what self-respecting Catholic pastor or evangelical preacher can appear to bless the party of partial-birth abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and gay marriage? African-Americans could long be counted on for Democratic gatherings, but many have big problems with gay marriage. Mainstream Protestant preachers are always available, but whatever votes the Democrats will get from that shrinking pool are already sewed up. The big Christian markets are Catholics and evangelicals, and that's where the problem comes in.

Those in both groups who go to church regularly voted heavily for Bush in 2000. For four years. the president has been courting evangelicals, those he considers his family in faith, and Catholic bishops have been bashing Kerry and other high placed Democrats. Whenever anyone tells me the bishops are nonpartisan, I agree, but I remember Philadelphia's hard-nosed John Cardinal Kroll delivering the benediction for Nixon and Agnew at Miami Beach in 1972, then joining arms with them to sing "God Bless America." Months later, I was told, he had agents gathering up photos of the moment from news service archives.

So, how to get the God of these quite different Christians to visit the Boston convention? First, it would be foolish to write off either group. Not all evangelicals are conservative in the Bush way. Most are people of immense good will. They love the Bible and have well formed consciences, as alert to violations of human rights, needless violence, economic injustice, and abuse of women and children as any Unitarian.

Similarly Catholics, including the bishops, for all their anxieties about so-called life issues, are reliably progressive on almost every other important issue of domestic and foreign policy. So these voters are in play.

Second, respect is important. Jimmy Carter helped create Reagan Democrats by ignoring working class Catholics. Gore drove a lot of conservative Christians to Bush by moving from modest affirmation of a woman's right to choose to near hysterical claims that the only moral question about abortion was who was there first with the most unnuanced commitment to abortion on demand.

Clearly it is important to treat people with respect who think that some limitations on abortion might be justified but who share the belief that criminalizing abortion is not the answer. One way for Democrats to find serious people to pray with them is to treat these groups with respect.

How to do that? First, instead of knee jerk affirmations of abortion, condoms in schools, and stem cell research, the party could adopt a platform that admits that good people are divided on these questions, that abortion is a serious moral question, especially in the last trimester, and that the right to choose does not imply that any choice is OK. It would affirm the moral agency of women and reject criminalizing abortion. The party would continue to champion Roe v. Wade but welcome conversation about the partial birth procedure, waiting periods, and parental notification in the case of minors.

The platform would oppose the positions of such religiously motivated politicians as Tom DeLay, John Ashcroft, Rick Santorum and, yes, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

It would continue the national commission established by Bush on the ethics of stem cell research, but broaden its agenda and ensure its credibility by having Democratic and Republican co-chairs. So there is a wide tent in the party, serious prolife Christians would be welcome. Finally that platform could be confirmed by a public session that featured serious presentations of common ground and difference by a prochoice and a prolife Democrat, preferably both women. That would show respect.

In that setting Democratic oriented Catholic and evangelical networks could easily deliver Catholic and evangelical pastoral leaders to ask that God's grace come down upon Democrats in Boston. And I suspect that none of them would ever feel compelled to find and destroy the pictures.

David O'Brien is director of the Center for Religion, Ethics, and Culture at the College of the Holy Cross. 

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