Q&A: Democratic Whip James Clyburn Talks Faith and Politics

The chairman of the Democrats' Faith Working Group on his party's faith-based face-lift.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

When then Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi wanted to turn around her party's secular image after the "values voter" election of 2004, she plucked South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn to lead the effort. Nearly five years later, Clyburn—now the House Whip—explains how his Democratic Faith Working Group is trying to resolve the debate over abortion coverage in healthcare reform, his decision to forgo seminary, and House Speaker Pelosi's Catholicism:

When you became chair of the Democrats' Faith Working Group in 2005, you said, "The Democratic agenda is deeply rooted in faith, but we have been less effective than we could be in communicating how our moral values guide our policies." That certainly seems to have changed.

Members are becoming much more comfortable with expressing our policies in faith terms. For a long time, constitutional issues were so near and dear to Democratic officials that we were just too guarded with all of that. Anything that even seemed like it would in any way violate constitutional principles we just stayed away from.

Now that the Democrats talk a good deal about faith and values, is the group even necessary anymore?

Oh, yes. Periodically, issues come up that need vetting outside of our regular setting. And some of that is taking place as we speak. We're now trying to put together a healthcare bill, and the chief negotiator on that is one of the cochairs of the Faith Working Group: [Connecticut Rep.] Rosa DeLauro.

In the context of this bill, the issue of the quote-unquote Hyde amendment and abortion issues are very much front and center. We've had some very serious deliberations on behalf of the entire caucus. Rosa DeLauro [met] with those members of our caucus who are squarely in the pro-life group.

Do you worry that Democratic concerns over abortion coverage can derail healthcare reform?

Oh, no, no. Those concerns will be resolved . . . . We have to just make sure that everybody feels comfortable.

How do you do that when one side claims the bill is abortion neutral and the other side says it includes an "abortion mandate" and federally funded abortions?

I'm going to let Rosa DeLauro make that pronouncement when she's comfortable doing it.

Are the concerns of antiabortion advocates about healthcare reform valid? Some Democrats say they're a smoke screen to derail reform.

Yes, they are very valid concerns. One of the reasons we exist is because the speaker feels there ought to be an entity within our caucus to keep these issues front and center. So Rosa DeLauro knows that there are things of the faith persuasion that are pretty much Catholic centered. She's the go-to person when it comes to this.

How often does the Faith Working Group convene?

The staffs of members of the Faith Working Group are meeting as we speak. It's almost a weekly meeting. We are always, as various members, meeting with outside groups.

What has the group accomplished recently that you're proud of?

Believe it or not, the faith community was big in [passing] our climate change bill. Something that I've always been taught is stewardship. It's the watchword in most religious teachings, and there's nothing more evident in stewardship than our responsibilities to the climate, to the Earth. It was a tough bill to get 218 on, and I don't think we would have been able to get there if there wasn't the kind of climate that faith groups helped us create.

And they're very much involved in this healthcare bill. I believe if James were writing his epistle today, he would go beyond clothing [the poor]. He would demand that we take care of the sick and the shut-in as part of expressing our faith. Most religious groups see it that way.

What do you say to religious conservatives who argue that those kind of biblical exhortations are directed at individuals, not the government?

What is the government if it's not individuals acting collectively on behalf of the common good? That's what we are. So I would not argue with that point. I would agree.

Ever catch flak from more secular lawmakers or liberal advocacy groups about bringing faith into government?

To the contrary, I get a lot of praise. I won't say his name, but one member of the caucus who is agnostic if not atheist said to me that of all the members of the caucus, the one person who they really are comfortable in playing this role is me. It's why Nancy [Pelosi] asked me to do this. And she herself is pretty grounded in her Catholicism. She doesn't hesitate to call upon that experience when needed.

She's often attacked by Catholic conservatives for her staunch support for abortion rights.

Her fundamental upbringing in Baltimore sometimes gets lost in the fact that she spent so much of her adult life in San Francisco. I go back to my faith upbringing that [talks about] bringing up a child in the way it should go so that when they get older they will not depart from it. And that can be applied to Nancy Pelosi. She was trained in the way she should go. She was a grown woman, married and raising her family, before she moved to San Francisco, having been born and raised in a staunch Catholic family in Baltimore. That's who she is.

You were planning to attend seminary, as your father did, but had a change of heart while at South Carolina State University. What happened?

I was participating in the sit-ins, and the sit-ins were very much faith based. I met my wife right after my first incarceration. We were sitting there talking about the future. I talked about going to the seminary, and she just thought that I was much better suited to go to law school. And one thing led to another, and I thought she was right, and I went home to tell my dad. But it took me 10 years to get to law school.

Ever regret not going to seminary?

The longer I live, the more I wish I had. I think if I had known back then what I know now, I probably would have gone to the seminary. There's a certain discipline in writing and speaking and really understanding people that I would have gotten to earlier in my life.

Many liberals and religious minorities criticize President Obama's faith-based office for delaying the decision on whether to allow religious groups receiving federal funds to hire based on religious background. What's your take?

I don't know how to get to where we need to be on that subject, but I'm sensitive to the fact that if you are a Jewish group, there ought to be some kind of reasonable balance so you're not forced to hire somebody who may not be sensitive to your background. It's just a tough issue to deal with. It's a very difficult issue, and I don't know if we'll ever resolve it.

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