Obama highlights faith and religion at Democratic convention

By Nathan Guttman, August 27, 2008

Attempting to make inroads to the Jewish community and Christian evangelicals, the Democrats launched an effort to highlight the role of faith and religion during its convention.

The conference, in Denver, formed a first-ever "faith caucus" and featured discussions on the role of religion in politics which included Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious leaders.

A prominent Reform religious leader, Rabbi David Saperstein, was chosen to give the invocation in the convention's most important event - the day Barack Obama accepts the Party's formal nomination for president.

Yet while the effort was welcomed by most Jewish organisations and drew significant participation from Jewish activists, some feared that opening the door for faith in politics might shake the time-honoured principle of church and state separation which is a cornerstone of American politics.

But for Jewish voters, religion was only part of the Democratic charm offensive, which focused on convincing them that Mr Obama was a strong supporter of Israel but also a leader on social justice issues, considered the main interest of Jewish American voters.

Leading Jewish Democrats attending the Denver convention tried to dispel arguments that Mr Obama still faced problems with Jewish voters. Recent polls show he would have only 62 per cent of Jewish voters, while former candidates John Kerry and Bill Clinton had more than 75 per cent.

"This election, we're going to see matching or exceeding levels of support from Jewish voters than we've seen for previous Democratic tickets," said Senator Charles Schumer of New York. Congressman Howard Berman, who chairs the Foreign Relations committee of the House of Representatives, promised that "the Jewish community is going to be very solid behind Obama".

Still, activists acknowledged that Mr Obama still had difficulties, especially in retirement communities in Southern Florida. Congressman Robert Wexler, who represents the area, said this was because many of them had been Hillary Clinton supporters. "I'm absolutely convinced that by the end of the convention week we will see the support for Obama rising," he said.

The Democratic organisers showed their attentiveness to Jewish concerns by sidelining former president Jimmy Carter, who irked the Jewish community after accusing Israel of apartheid,. He was only acknowledged in a short video clip and a brief walk through the main stage.

Last updated: 2:42pm, August 27 2008