The D.C. Democratic primary campaign wandered into its “Come to Jesus” phase last night. The most unabashedly sectarian indulgence of the political season took place at Zion Baptist Church on Blagden Avenue NW, a main north-south thoroughfare in the city’s famed Gold Coast off 16th Street. The event was a candidate’s forum sponsored by the Missionary Baptist Ministers Conference of Washington, DC and Vicinity, which bills itself as the greatest conference in the world.
It was a soul-stirring performance: mayoral candidates morphing Christian soldiers looking for a war on which to march.
The vote-hungry politicians left no doubt that they knew they were in the house of the Lord. With hundreds on hand, including a large contingent of stern-looking pastors clad in dark suits seated in front, some of the mayoral wannabes went out of their way to demonstrate their devotion to all that the pastors hold dear.
To no surprise, the forum questions also routinely covered what by now have become the standard campaign issues: the plight of the homeless, lack affordable housing, quality of the schools, commitment to the University of the District of Columbia, how to make the city work for everyone, etc.
But religion, or rather the moderator’s question of the candidate’s “faith input” on public policy issues, is what got some of the politicians testifying as if they were in the pulpit on Sunday morning.
Long-shot candidate Reta Jo Lewis got the ball rolling with her declaration, delivered in a quivering voice ( if nothing else, she emotes well) that “there is a war on our churches. There is a war on our faith community.”
And, you may ask, how is the war manifested?
“It starts with parking” she exclaimed. Sunday worshipers coming in to the city “can’t park around their churches.” Applause followed. Her one minute up, she sat down, triumphant.
Not to be outdone, Vincent Orange (D-At Large) declared to the gathering, “I want everybody to go to church.” In case that message was lost on folks, Orange added “I want everybody to be touched by the hand of God.”
Orange said his church, Metropolitan AME at 15th and M Street NW, has hosted “Winnie Mandela, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama” at worship services. Orange testified that his church had to contend with attempts by bikers to take away parking spaces in front of the church for dedicated bike lanes — precious space that should be devoted to the devoted.
Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) announced that if elected as mayor, he would have a religious affairs office and that he would meet monthly with clergy. To further burnish his religious stripes, Evans mentioned that he is a member of Foundry Methodist Church on “Dupont Circle” (which is several blocks from the church). But in a flash of oratorical overkill, a tendency I have observed in Evans since his first race for a council seat, Evans told the crowd that he was also Episcopalian, affiliated with Christ Church in Georgetown. That disclosure won him groans from the mostly Baptist attendees, who realized they had a panderer in their midst.
Tommy Wells, ( D-Ward 6) laying claim to the title of Official Doing The Most For D.C. Spiritual Life, told the gathering about what he has taught his Sunday school class. Honesty, integrity, stand up for what’s right, he said. Then he segued into a riff about Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s 2010 campaign and the under-the-table money given to another candidate to hound then-mayor Adrian Fenty. Wells, drawing upon biblical teachings, suggested campaign offenders should admit their guilt and seek forgiveness. Head held high, drenched in sanctimony, Wells sat down to scattered clapping.
Mayor Gray took time to dispute a recent Gallup tracking poll that showed the District of Columbia to be among the five least religious states in the nation. Not his experience, Gray said, citing the work of religious nonprofits and churches, synagogues and mosques in the city.
Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), like Gray, avoided giving a personal declaration of devotion to all things ecclesiastical, preferring instead to cite by name the pastors and religious institutions that are doing good in the community. Bowser pointed out that many of the worshipers who can’t find parking around their churches are people who moved out of the District. (Talk about going from preaching to meddling.)
But only candidate Andy Shallal, restaurateur, seemed to stray from the drift of the evening’s direction. He cited his Iraqi origins and said, in his experience, there is a case for the separation of church and state. Religion, Shallal said, has done much good, but, as can been seen in Iraq and other places, a lot of bad things have been done in the name of religion. But he, too, said that there would be a place for religious input in his administration.
Time was up.
Blessed, we departed Zion Baptist.