The minister who leads Democrats to faith

Leah Daughtry, CEO of her party's upcoming convention, emphasizes 'public holiness.'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Faith in action: After Democratic Party leader Howard Dean (r.) chose Leah Daughtry as his No. 2, she began reaching out to religious groups.
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For evidence that the Democratic Party has warmed to the idea that religion has a role in politics, look no further than Leah Daughtry.

The CEO of this summer's Democratic National Convention and chief of staff to party head Howard Dean is also the pastor of a Pentecostal church. Since 2005, she has led the party's outreach to religious groups as it seeks to reverse its image of being less than faith-friendly.

For Ms. Daughtry, faith and politics have been a natural mix since childhood, and she welcomes the chance to correct the idea that Democrats are hostile to religion. "For thousands of people of faith who have always been part of the party, that label became more than we could bear," she says in a phone interview. "Most of us are in the Democratic Party because we see the values of our faith mirrored in it."

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The Republican Party has successfully assumed the religion mantle for three decades. With a large contingent of nonbelievers among the Democrats, and the party's strong support for the separation of church and state, Democratic candidates were often reticent to speak about faith. But after the 2004 election revealed that values were motivating factors for many voters, the party was ripe for change, says Tony Campolo, a prominent evangelical pastor, professor, and author, who is on the Democratic platform committee.

When Daughtry became Mr. Dean's No. 2 in early 2005, she recommended an active outreach to religious groups, called Faith in Action (FIA), and he concurred. "His first conference call as chairman was with some faith leaders," she says. The aim was to open lines of communication.

Faith and politics are two sides of the same coin, according to Daughtry, an energetic yet soft-spoken African-American. They involve private holiness and "public holiness issues – how society treats its people, what God has to say about it, and how I as a person of faith respond to what society" is or is not doing.

Having presidential candidates as articulate about their faith as Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton helped the party make its case. Senator Obama has even stepped up his religious outreach since becoming the presumptive nominee, meeting with 40 faith leaders, speaking about his personal religious journey, and planning an outreach to Christian youths.

The party apparatus has made its own inroads. The FIA strategy involves communicating with national religious leaders and organizations, supporting state parties in outreach efforts, and encouraging candidates at all levels to speak the language of values.

"Americans want to feel comfortable that they know who you are and what to expect if you're elected," Daughtry says. "The only way to accomplish that is for candidates to be transparent and authentic about their values."

FIA's staff interacts with various groups (Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, etc.) and has even engaged with Republican bastions. Daughtry, who traveled to Salt Lake City to meet with elders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was invited back to see their new president installed.

"I think we've done a good job of developing relationships across the country," she says. "Part of the reason you see changes in the evangelical community, particularly among younger Evangelicals, ... is that we've better articulated our values around issues such as Darfur, poverty, the environment."

During visits to evangelical colleges and universities, Dr. Campolo has done his own classroom polls of students. (The most recent, just before the end of the primaries: 29 for Obama; 14 for Sen. John McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee; and three for Senator Clinton.) He has seen a split among young Evangelicals: Those in college are tending toward Democrats, he says, while those not in college are sticking with the Republicans.

Other religious voters also show signs of change. For the first time since the 1930s, more mainline Protestants call themselves Democrats (46 percent) than Republicans (37 percent), according to a Calvin College poll released last month.

The Democratic embrace of faith and values hasn't come without problems.

"There was a very strong and vocal pushback" from some in the party, says Eric Sapp, a consultant who advises candidates on how to connect with religious voters. But some people changed their minds, he adds, when they saw the success in the 2006 election of some statewide candidates who had worked with his former firm, Common Good Strategies. Those candidates averaged 20 percentage points better with white Protestants than the national average.

Daughtry comes from a segment of the party that is not shy about putting faith into action through politics. Her father, the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, was deeply involved in the civil rights movement and he recently returned from a trip to Sudan.

Last month, the House of the Lord Church in Brooklyn celebrated his 50th anniversary as pastor. Leah came home to preach and her sister led the congregation in singing, prayer, and dancing in the aisles. (The two sisters are the fifth generation of family preachers, starting with a slave preacher on the Daughtry plantation.)

Taking her text from the story of Deborah in the Book of Judges, Leah wove a theme of rising out of one's comfort level to accept fresh challenges and new perspectives that God provides. In the call-and-response style of black preaching, worshipers joined in and were all on their feet by the time she concluded.

While her message was directed to others, she could have been talking about her own life. After graduating from Dartmouth College in 1984, Daughtry worked for her church for a year and then took a job with her congressman, Rep. Edolphus "Ed" Towns (D) of New York's 10th District.

"That helped me understand that what happens in Washington is connected to what happens in Brooklyn. The laws they pass on Capitol Hill have an impact on the dry cleaner on Myrtle Avenue or the pharmacy on Fulton Street," she says.

She moved on to the Department of Labor, where her management skills led eventually to her appointment as assistant secretary for administration and management in the Clinton administration. After work hours, she held Bible study sessions for interested colleagues. That's when she felt the call to ordained ministry. Her Bible-study group grew to become a church.

While carrying out her CEO responsibilities this year in Denver, Daughtry flies back to Washington to preach about twice a month. Now she's counting the days until the job is done. "I can't wait to get back and teach Bible study again," she says. "That's what I miss most."

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