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Convention preacher offers US views

Politics and religion rub shoulders in the pew next week. Advocates for the poor have invited delegates to the Democratic National Convention to an interfaith service and rally from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Wednesday at Old South Church.

The featured preacher, the Rev. James A. Forbes Jr., once got an impressive nomination himself: Newsweek named him one of the dozen ''most effective preachers" in the English-speaking world. Forbes has been the senior minister at Manhattan's Riverside Church since 1989. He also will address the convention Tuesday night. Excerpts from an interview follow.

Can you preview what you're going to say in your sermon?

My general point is that good news for the poor is good news for us all. If America is to be the nation that is to provide leadership in the global age, we must show we do not ignore the subsistence necessities of the disadvantaged. During this time of war, resources are spent in that military and defense operation. We as religious groups [must] allow our nation to recognize that when it's hard for most of us, it's disastrous for those who are least advantaged.

What do you think of President Bush's faith-based initiative as an antipoverty strategy?

There are certain problems. How do we keep the power of the political from contaminating the religious integrity? To what extent has the religious right been more frequently the recipients of these [funds]? To what extent do others who receive funds feel compelled to support a more right-wing agenda? It's going to be important that we get some transparency. More importantly, there was not a serious appropriation for such partnerships.

Some people might say preaching about poverty during the Democratic convention is preaching to the choir.

Let's say that, on balance, everybody would understand that the sympathies of the Democratic Party have most often been in the direction of the common man. However, without the faith community championing the well-being of the poor, they could become a casualty in the wake of the war [spending].

Regular churchgoers overwhelmingly vote Republican. What does that suggest about the two political parties?

In my sermon, I may call people to read Isaiah 58. In it, we get evidence that religion can express itself in two directions. One is personal piety, reflected in church attendance and public display of one's religious identification. Another aspect is the prophetic critique. In [Isaiah], it's almost as if God would say, forget about how often you go to church, forget about how many times you pray; what I want you to do is feed the hungry, take the homeless into your homes, care for those who are incarcerated. In Matthew 25, the issue is, when I was hungry, you didn't feed me, when I was poor and naked, you didn't clothe me.

The polls will give the impression that folks are more religious on the basis of how much they go to church. I'm a pastor; I want folks to come. But the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights are rooted in a call for justice. Otherwise, people will punch their cards -- ''See, I went [to church] 12 times." But you did not provide resources for [the needy].

Whether it's disagreement among Catholic bishops about denying Communion to [Senator John F.] Kerry or Protestant ministers endorsing candidates, your colleagues in ministry are being criticized for mixing church and state these days. Is that a fair rap?

With the Republicans asking [sympathetic] congregations to almost become like little political committees -- if that's going to be done, it has to be fair game for everybody. It was always possible for a pastor to stand up and say who he's voting for. What cannot happen is the congregation [endorsing] a candidate.

[With Catholics], the pastoral letter on economic justice passed by the bishops is one of the most progressive and humanitarian analyses of what needs to happen to the poor. If the bishops are going to withhold Communion, saying there are certain things you can't do and still enjoy the blessings of the church, I would hope that the bishops would make their list long enough to reflect the broad understanding of Catholic teachings and not simply a single issue. My sense is God's list of excluding would be longer, but God's grace of inclusion would be greater.

Your church is famously progressive. Is there an issue about which you take a conservative stance that might surprise people?

Yes. I believe the future of America is going to be determined much more by the next great spiritual awakening. At the advanced stages of secularization to which our nation has come, we, if we are to reestablish the foundation upon which the nation was built, will have to recover the sense of accountability to something other than material well-being or political power or the pursuit of pleasure.

Rich Barlow can be reached at 

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