DENVER - In the generic meeting rooms of the Colorado Convention Center, a revolution is taking place in the Democratic Party. The people of faith have arrived.
Every day has seen a panel or gathering or both of religious and spiritual leaders, some gathered together by Joshua DuBois, the Obama campaign's director of religious affairs, others convened by outside groups such as Faith in Public Life. Each gathering has the whiff of a "walk-into-a-bar" joke -- as in, "A rabbi, a priest and a minister walk into a bar…" -- a distinctly different scent than a gathering of GOP religious.
And it doesn't end with church-mosque-temple-synagogue crowd. Add in the unchurched but spiritual set, and you've got a negotiation of the higher power in politics unlike any ever tried before.
To the mainstream media, Oprah Winfrey, who will attend Barack Obama's acceptance speech tonight, is simply a very powerful celebrity, a pop-culture icon like a rock star or something. But to her viewers - her followers, really - Oprah is a priestess. First on the menu of her Web site, Oprah.com, is a channel called "spirit." When she introduced Barack Obama on the campaign trail during primary season, she did it in oratory laced with religious references. In Des Moines, she spoke this way of making the choice to, for the first time, publicly endorse a presidential candidate: "I feel like I?m out of my pew."
Because of the diversity of the Democratic party, the Obama campaign's concerted outreach to what are called "faith voters" is not without risk. In the GOP, the religious faction have a broadly shared agenda, centering mostly on issues of sexuality and women's freedom. Among the leftward-leaning religious and spiritual types, you find a pretty consistent agenda on poverty, health care and the social contract, but wild divergence on reproductive freedom, same-sex marriage and how far to take faith values into the political arena. And then you have some of the religious types simply dismissed the "unchurched" believers -- the spiritual types -- as "secular", when they are anything but.
In the past, the spiritual types -- often the refugees of the church experience -- have stayed far from people in collars, yarmulkes and kufis, practicing a very individualized form of faith in an almost underground fashion. Now, thanks in no small part to Oprah Winfrey, spiritual leaders like Deepak Chopra and Marianne Williamson are part of the mainstream, with significant numbers of followers of their own, and a moral system that demands expression in policy, if not politics.
Yesterday, I attended a panel on "New Faith Voters" convened by the organization Faith in Public Life that truly blew my mind. At one end of the spectrum sat Jim Wallis, the anti-abortion, centrist evangelical minister who founded Sojourners. Wallis is among those who sought to influence the Democratic party platform on the matter of abortion. (The platform language about