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Party refuses to cede the religious vote

Inside a dim, windowless ballroom in the Hyatt Regency Boston, Alabama delegates stomped, cheered, and shouted "Amen" as Ron Sparks, the state's commissioner of agriculture and industries, yesterday delivered a stirring address in which he described attending church with his grandmother as a boy.

"Let me say this one thing: It really aggravates me every time one of those Republicans tell me that I don't know anything about Jesus Christ," Sparks said, prompting a round of "That's right!" from other delegates.

Then Paul R. Hubbert, executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association, sparked applause by saying, "We have allowed the other side to bully us, in talking about values, values that we treasure."

Democrats, gathered in Boston for their quadrennial national convention, are making what they say is an effort to reclaim the language of faith and to reach out to religious voters. Their drive comes as political observers talk of a "God Gap," as the Bush campaign is aggressively reaching out to church members, and as polls show the more often a voter goes to church, the more likely one is to vote Republican.

Yesterday, the Democratic National Committee sponsored its first convention caucus for "people of faith," and last week the party hired a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister as a senior adviser on outreach to religious voters. On Monday night, the Democratic National Committee allowed a rabbi, William Hamilton of Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline, onto the convention floor to lead about 50 delegates in a postadjournment chanting of the Book of Lamentations to mark the Jewish holiday of Tisha B'Av.

"Up 'til now we've just been willing to sit idly by and let the other side claim the area of faith," Jean Carnahan, a former US senator from Missouri who said she is helping the Kerry campaign develop its faith effort, said in an interview yesterday. "You're going to see a lot more Democrats being willing to express their faith.

"We've been very reluctant . . . but now we realize people want that expression -- they want to know what you're made of and where you come from and what motivates you, and we've got to show that we are motivated by our faith."

Multiple speakers on the convention floor this week have used the word "faith" in describing the values of John Kerry and the Democratic Party, but several speakers have also criticized the Republican Party for using religion as a means of dividing voters. Last night, Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of vice presidential candidate John Edwards, said, "We deserve leaders who allow their faith and moral core -- our faiths and moral core -- to draw us closer together, not drive us farther apart." And on Tuesday night, Barack Obama, the US Senate candidate from Illinois, said in his keynote address, "John Kerry . . . will never sacrifice our basic liberties, nor use faith as a wedge to divide us."

The Kerry campaign is signing up laypeople and clergy on a special section of its website for "people of faith," and is planning to send e-mails and host conference calls aimed at religious supporters of the campaign. The campaign is also proposing to organize faith-inspired service projects, and is marketing "People of Faith for Kerry" bumper stickers, buttons, and T-shirts.

Among those urging the intensified outreach to the religious is former White House press secretary Mike McCurry, who has become increasingly involved in the politics of his own denomination, the United Methodist Church. "There has certainly never been this kind of concentrated effort to reach out to the faith community, to understand it better, and to understand that we can be fully competitive in the world of religious people, and not cede that ground to Republicans," McCurry said. "We need to be more comfortable talking about the way our faith life informs the work we do on issues . . . That runs a little bit different from the culture of our party. I think Kerry is recognizing that as a candidate, and this could potentially be a really important breakthrough moment."

Since the 1980s, the Republican Party has increasingly embraced the language of religion, as the GOP has successfully courted, and become influenced by, conservative white evangelical Protestants. By contrast, Democratic leaders have often shied away from explicit talk of religion, in part because such language had become associated with conservative politics, and in part because some Democrats view public expressions of faith as contradicting the separation of church and state.

A spokesman for the Bush campaign, Kevin Madden, predicted that religious voters would continue to support the president: "People of faith across the country do support this president and we do have enthusiastic support from congregations and parishes across this country because this president is very firmly grounded in his principles and is very clear about what he believes in."

Polling research suggests that religiosity is closely correlated with political conservatism, according to Anna Greenberg, a pollster who spoke at a Tuesday session at MIT titled, "Red God, Blue God: The God Gap in Presidential Politics -- Is it Real?" Greenberg said people who attend church regularly tend to favor Bush, and people who do not tend to favor Kerry.

Democrats are becoming increasingly outspoken in their criticism of the way that polls measure religiosity, arguing that frequency of church attendance or Bible reading is not the only way to measure faith. They argue that many adherents of liberal religious denominations express their faith through social action, and that such expressions of faith are discounted by researchers.

The religious community is not fully embracing either political party. Yesterday, progressive religious groups, frustrated with what they say is a lack of attention to the poor, attracted nearly 1,000 people to an interfaith worship service at Old South Church aimed at persuading delegates to return to some of the party's traditional concerns about hunger and homelessness. Some clergy say those issues are getting short shrift as the Democratic Party tries to appeal to the middle class.

Some religious Democrats said that they would like to hear Kerry talk more about his own religious beliefs. "I would look for him to say something about his faith -- some mention," said Jan Bryson, 47, a businesswoman from Atlanta, who was brought up Episcopalian and attends a Lutheran church. "Being an African-American, in our community faith is at the core of everything we do. So from a personal standpoint, I think [religion] is very much needed to play a role."

Sarah Schweitzer of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

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