Democrats Focus on Faith Agenda, Activists Interrupt

by Nathan L. Gonzales August 30, 2008 · 12:05 AM EDT

Democrats continued their unprecedented outreach to faith voters in Denver this week as they worked to expand the values issue agenda to include more than hot-button social issues. But after two official faith panels at the Colorado Convention Center on Tuesday, it’s clear that abortion is still a hot issue both within and outside the party.

Sojourners Chief Executive Officer Jim Wallis moderated the panel “Common Ground on Common Good,” where panelists discussed poverty, immigration and education. Fourteen “Pro-Family, Pro-Obama” signs accompanied the group on stage, a clear effort to co-opt the common language of socially conservative activists.

After initially discussing other issues, the panel finally confronted the elephant in the room. Former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer (D) spoke first about the 95-10 Initiative (to reduce 95 percent of abortions in 10 years) but was careful to include that it should be done “within the law and legal system today.”

But even though Roemer didn’t advocate for Roe v. Wade to be overturned, Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama’s (Ill.) campaign clearly thought it was necessary to balance his more moderate remarks on the issue.

“I’ve been a pastor for 35 years and I’m in favor of choice,” the Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlewaite of Chicago Theological Seminary said to roaring applause, the loudest of the panel.

Just minutes after she began, two men from the audience interrupted her by shouting, “Is abortion murder?” and “Does the child have a choice?” It was not apparent whether the men were Democrats, delegates or outsiders.

“This is an example of a lack of common ground,” Thistlewaite responded. Obama campaign staff politely removed the men from the room and Thistlewaite continued to give her full remarks, making the distinction between reducing abortions and reducing the need for abortions, which she favors.

“I’m tired of all the shouting on this question. The shouting has to stop,” Wallis said following Thistlewaite, but it wasn’t clear whether he was talking about the protesters, Thistlewaite’s passionate remarks or both.

The protesters were the Rev. Lee Hartley of Clarksville, Mo., and Ron Hartman, who are in Denver all week with Operation Rescue, a conservative anti-abortion rights group. Neither man had convention credentials. And even though neither posed a physical threat, a half-dozen police officers showed up following the incident and stood in the back of the room for the duration of the panels.

The incident appears to be one of the only interruptions by an outside group at an official convention function. But the incident demonstrates the tension the abortion issue causes, even within the party. As some Democrats want to moderate the party’s stance on abortion to reach out to more conservative faith voters, the larger pro-choice contingency within the party won’t go quietly.

Two more faith panels were scheduled for Thursday.