Democratic Party names Derrick Harkins to lead faith outreach efforts

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that former D.C. mayor Adrian M. Fenty is a member of Nineteenth Street Baptist Church. Fenty occasionally attends the church but is not a member. This version has been corrected.

The Rev. Derrick Harkins, a popular D.C. pastor with a shaved head and a remarkable résumé, was named Thursday to lead faith outreach for a Democratic Party seeking to bolster support for President Obama among black and religious voters.

Harkins is the first member of the faith outreach staff that the party has announced for the 2012 election. In 2008, the campaign made strides in attracting religious voters long considered GOP property, particularly white evangelicals. Recent polls show weakened support for Obama among such groups, and some experts on faith outreach say Harkins’s work with progressive and conservative evangelicals in particular could help.

“I think they realize the excitement isn’t there from the first campaign, which was like a revival,” said Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations and a longtime activist in faith and politics in the District. “They need help with their base, and Harkins is a bellwether.”

Harkins leads Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Northwest Washington, a predominantly African American congregation known for elite as well as solidly middle-class members. Former mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who chose Harkins to speak at his inaugural prayer service, occasionally attends the church, and D.C. Council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) is a member.

One of the city’s most historic and prominent churches, Nineteenth Street is now on 16th Street but kept its name after moving in 1975 to emphasize its longtime location at 19th and I streets NW, near the White House.


Derrick Harkins, left, with Joshua DuBois of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the annual Congressional Black Caucus prayer breakfast in September (Hamil R. Harris/WASHINGTON POST)

“Harkins brings the assets of Obama’s Chicago church but without the baggage,” Lynch said, a reference to the president’s former place of worship, Trinity United Church of Christ, where Obama was close to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the controversial pastor.

The president and his family picked Harkins’s church for services just before Obama was inaugurated.

Harkins works with some of the country’s most visible Christian groups on both the right and the left. He sits on the board of the center-right National Association of Evangelicals, the country’s biggest evangelical organization, as well as of the progressive advocacy group Faith in Public Life.

Obama in 2008 picked up five percentage points of support among white evangelicals over John F. Kerry in 2004 (26 percent vs. 21 percent) and nearly three times the percentage of those younger than 40 (33 percent vs. 12 percent).

Since then, Obama has made several public efforts to reach out to more religiously conservative leaders, successfully seeking common ground on issues such as adoption and foreign aid.

“It seems like a very positive step for the Democratic Party to tap someone who has connections . . . with progressives and conservatives. . . . It seems like an important bridge to start rebuilding,” Rebecca Sager, a sociologist who studies progressive faith outreach, said about Harkins’s selection. The party and its candidates, she said, cut way back on faith outreach in the midterm elections. “They are starting this conversation again, which is an important step.”

Harkins said his job is to emphasize that Obama’s religious beliefs and sense of morality have led the president to promote jobs and health care for the poor, among other things.

“It will be my responsibility to make sure we articulate that he, all along, has been guided by these values,” he said.

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Staff writers Hamil Harris and Nia-Malika Henderson contributed to this report.

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
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