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Meet Derrick Harkins, the Pastor Behind the Democratic Party’s Faith Outreach

By | September 6, 2012

Derrick Harkins

(The Washington Post/Getty Images)

CHARLOTTE — “Faith is an integral part of the Democratic Party,” the Reverend Derrick Harkins proclaimed Wednesday as he kicked off a panel on religion at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. “Don’t put any credence to the lie that somehow faith is not an integral part of who we are as Democrats—somebody ought to say, ‘Amen!’” Applause filled the forum. The event, the second that Harkins helped organize this week in addition to a daily morning prayer series, is the most recent attempt by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to rally the faith vote for President Obama in November. And Harkins is the man behind the mission.

The first time Harkins met the president was six years ago, when then-Senator Obama gave his Call to Renewal speech—perhaps his most openly Christian public address—at Washington’s National City Christian Church. “If we truly hope to speak to people where they’re at, to communicate our hopes and values in a way that’s relevant to their own,” Obama said, “then as progressives, we cannot abandon the field of religious discourse.” At the time, Harkins was on the board of the progressive evangelical organization Sojourners, which was hosting the conference. From the pews, he listened carefully as the young congressman outlined how his Christian commitments informed his progressive agenda. “Even then, when people were just beginning to buzz about his possibly running for president, I was struck by the depth and authenticity of his own understanding of his personal faith,” Harkins recalls.

Now it is up to Harkins to convey that message to America’s faithful. Last October, the DNC tapped Harkins, a full-time pastor at one of Washington’s oldest historically African American churches, Nineteenth Street Baptist, to lead its rekindled faith outreach effort. He has one goal until election day: to get America’s faithful as fired up—and more—for Democrats and Obama as they were in 2008. The party made great strides four years ago in conveying themselves as values voters. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Obama picked up 26 percent of the white evangelical vote, up from John Kerry’s 21 percent in 2004. He made even stronger gains among religious voters under age 40: he received 33 percent of their vote versus Kerry’s 12 percent.

This year’s effort is no small task. When Obama won the White House, two of his top campaign faith advisors, Joshua DuBois and Mara Vanderslice, joined the administration and left a gap for overt political outreach, which was largely unfilled through the 2010 midterms. Evangelical support for Democrats fell nearly 30 percent from 2008 to 2010, according to Pew, while Catholic support for Republicans also rose 12 points.

This summer the White House has faced a host of hot button traditional values issues. In May, the president announced his support for same-sex marriage while citing his Christian faith as part of his motivation, a move that rocked his base in the traditionally more conservative African American church. The White House has also been embroiled in a battle over its push for contraception coverage in health insurance plans. In June, the Catholic Health Association pulled support from the administration’s contraception compromise, saying that the mandate for religious employers to offer contraception coverage would not “adequately meet the religious liberty concerns.” Can Harkins and the DNC still make a case to so-called values voters? “Our effort is not going to cede any ground,” Harkins says. “It is important for people to understand we are not approaching this timidly—we are committed to be engaged in this conversation.”
 

DERRICK HARKINS WAS BORN in Cleveland, Ohio in 1959. He earned a bachelor of science in broadcasting and film from Boston University before going on to earn a Masters in Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York and a doctorate in homiletics from United Seminary in Ohio. He served as an assistant pastor at New York’s famed Abyssinian Baptist Church before taking the pulpit of New Hope Baptist Church in Dallas. From there, he moved to the nation’s capital and to Nineteenth Street Baptist, a church known for its Civil Rights legacy. This November Harkins, 53, will celebrate his fifteenth year as senior pastor there.

It was in church on a Sunday morning that Harkins had his first opportunity truly to talk to Obama. Just three days before he was sworn into the Oval office, the soon-to-be first family came to worship at Nineteenth Street Baptist. In a small side room before the service began, Harkins, his wife Juli, and their two daughters sat alone with the president-elect, his wife, and their two daughters. In an odd way, says Harkins, it was a chance for Washington old-timers to guide the new kids on the block around town. “We just had the chance to talk as parents,” he recalls. “We talked about how our oldest daughter was involved in theater, and that was an interest to Malia at least at the time, and our younger daughter dances ballet, and at the time Sasha had an interest in dance. It was a wonderful, comfortable conversation.”

Two and a half years into the Obama presidency, Harkins accepted his role as the DNC National Director of Faith Outreach while continuing as the full-time pastor of Nineteenth Street. Harkins’ efforts are tied to the DNC, and not directly to the president’s faith-based campaign efforts, which launched in May with the hiring of Faith Vote Director Michael Wear. But Obama’s reelection certainly ties in with the party’s efforts. And although Harkins was a new name to many DC politicos, his presence in religious communities, particularly Christian ones, was well established. He serves on the boards of the National Association of Evangelicals and of World Relief, the NAE’s humanitarian arm, and he has worked with religious groups on both sides of the aisle. “His ability to easily move in different faith circles is rare and exactly what is needed for the position,” says Eric Sapp, founding partner of the Eleison Group, a progressive faith-based consulting firm.
 

NOW THAT THE ELECTION cycle in entering the homestretch, Harkins and Joshua Dickson, the DNC’s only other full-time faith outreach staffer, spend their days building relationships and mobilizing faithful Democrats to get out the vote. Outreach to evangelicals is a top priority, particularly since the president made gains with younger evangelical voters four years ago. “There is a response and receptivity still,” Harkins says, noting that his plan is to reach out to white evangelical voters “vigorously, enthusiastically, robustly.” A widely-cited early April Barna poll found that evangelicals will likely double their support for Obama from 2008 levels. Room for improvement exists, however: the same poll also found that only 3 to 5 percent of evangelicals said they would definitely vote for Obama, while 53 to 58 percent said they would definitely support his Republican opponent. 

Still, despite talk of enthusiasm and with only two months until the election, details about the DNC faith outreach plan remain sparse. In August, the Obama campaign unveiled its “Catholics For Obama” team, a list of 21 Catholic luminaries who support the president’s re-election. The “Rabbis for Obama” list is far longer. “We are already engaging leadership across the faith spectrum—including Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, the broader faith community,” says Harkins. When asked in April about Democratic engagement with Mormon leadership, Harkins replied, “Those are developing and evolving conversations … We know this election is going to be extremely close, and we are not discounting, dismissing, ignoring any part of the faith community.” LDS Democratic Senate candidate Scott Howell joined Harkins’ panel on Wednesday as a sign of interfaith solidarity.

Harkins insists that targeting Romney’s Mormon faith is not an option for his team. “It has been made very clear that this is beyond the pale and will not be part of our campaign.” While neither party can control what people say down the line, going after Romney’s faith “would be a mistake,” Mark DeMoss, a faith public relations consultant and evangelical advisor to the Romney campaign, said in an interview earlier this summer. It would backfire in the same way as Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen’s comment about Ann Romney’s choice to stay at home with her children. “Whether or not she was representing campaign or party was almost immaterial. In the final analysis, it was damaging to Democrats and to the president, so they quickly distanced themselves from it,” he says. “Any attack on Romney’s faith would have the same kind of effect pretty quickly.”

Democrats may not want to wade into issues of Mormon orthodoxy—after all, their own candidate has faced unfounded criticism for allegedly being Muslim—but some conservative evangelicals teach their members that Mormonism is a cult. That reality caused Romney problems in the primary. More importantly, until the Republican National Convention in Tampa, the Romney campaign’s response had been to downplay the candidate’s faith. The consequences could be a boon for Harkins, Sapp noted. “Romney’s lack of engagement leaves a vacuum that Democrats can fill both in outreach and messaging.”

One topic Harkin’s team has already tackled is immigration—an issue Harkins has made a longtime personal priority. A member of Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, Harkins has testified before Congress about the challenges the immigration crisis poses for families. When he met with Hispanic evangelicals pastors in Orlando earlier this summer, he focused on the broader impact immigration has on issues like education and poverty, an impact “that is completely and polar opposite from what we are hearing from the other side.”

Protecting voter rights will continue to be another DNC faith outreach focus. Republican-backed measures requiring voters to present photo identification at the polls have taken root across the country. Democrats have argued that the new rules disproportionately and negatively affect minority voters. The last week in August, courts overturned new voter access restrictions in Texas, Ohio, and Florida. The issue holds particular resonance for black churches, which often make specific efforts to get out the vote, bussing members to the polls and ensuring access to voter registration drives. “That is an important inroad we’ve had in faith communities,” Harkins explains. “I can sit down in a room full of pastors in Florida, in Pennsylvania, in Ohio, in Wisconsin, where voter restrictions have been enacted and in many other states where they are being proposed, we can talk about everyone having access to the polls, everyone being able to exercise their franchise, we want to be able to make that happen.”
 

HARKINS SHOULD HAVE NO problem achieving Democratic support among the historically African American church from which he hails, but his goal is to spread those roots even farther. “At the February prayer breakfast, the President talked about being our brother’s keeper,” he explains. “Sure, that will resonate with the African American church. But that will also resonate if you are a Presbyterian from Greenwich, Connecticut, or a Southern Baptist from Tuscaloosa, Alabama.”

Targeting the Romney/Ryan budget will remain at the forefront of DNC faith efforts, as will championing affordable healthcare. “The president’s economic plan stands on the values that we need to take care of those who indeed need our support,” explains Harkins, comparing the president’s platform to his Republican opponent’s. “The safety plan for children, the safety net for the elderly that the president advocates for in the Affordable Care Act … that alone is such a stark difference, and I think it causes somebody to really say I see the value the importance the distinction between these two sets of values.” At the DNC faith event Wednesday afternoon, Obama’s Affordable Care Act received more applause and standing ovations than any other topic.

Painting with such broad us-versus-them strokes might prove difficult as Romney’s campaign continues to challenge the president’s economic record. “Evangelicals care about jobs, price of gas, price of the home, major economic issues,” counters DeMoss. “I would predict that, not unlike any other group, evangelicals are going to be guided largely by economic issues in this election—and therefore who they think can best improve things on that front.”

Harkins has faced criticism, particularly just after he assumed his new role. Critics deemed him too conservative on abortion and gay marriage, and he has since sought to clarify his stance. “I certainly, absolutely believe that everyone deserves full and equal protection under the law,” he explained in April, before the president announced his support for gay marriage in May. “I, like a whole lot of Americans, am in the process of seeing ever more clearly what these kinds of issues need to look like as we move forward. If that means that my position is evolving, then so be it.” Since the president’s announcement, he now has this to say: “We are part of an ongoing conversation that I think will end up in a place that will be better for all Americans when we realize that everybody, regardless of their sexual orientation, has a right to live fully and freely.” His pastoral role, he says, also means he takes care to respect the wishes of his congregants on right-to-life issues. “In terms of reproductive rights, as a pastor, if someone came to me, I would do my best to explore possibilities that would bring the pregnancy to term.” He adds that he would also support an individual who chooses not to carry a pregnancy to term. “That is the law of the land, which I fully understand.”

To Democrats who might think Harkins is not progressive enough on abortion and gay marriage, Sapp says more open-mindedness is in order. “We have to win to make a difference, and Derrick’s position and questions are much more in line with the positions of the voters we will need to win (and fully in-line with the Democratic platform),” he explains. “Let’s practice what we preach as a party about being inclusive, and realize that it’s counter-productive to demand ideological purity tests.”

Harkins for one does not want any distraction from his broader purpose. As Election Day nears, his message boils down to one simple point: “So far we have had tremendous positive support from a wide spectrum of Americans,” he says. “Democrats are values voters as well.”

Elizabeth Dias is a writer-reporter at TIME

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