CHARLOTTE, N.C.—On the corner of 5th Street and College Street in downtown Charlotte, N.C., an ugly scene unfolded on the first morning of the Democratic National Convention in early September.
It began when a few dozen Planned Parenthood activists in pink T-shirts marched to the usually staid intersection after they couldn’t clear security barriers for a larger rally outside the nearby NASCAR Hall of Fame.
By the time the diverted activists reached the corner, they discovered a much smaller group of pro-life demonstrators directly across the street. The pro-life activists included at least five small children. Adults in the group displayed graphic images of aborted children, and one man declared through a megaphone: “Unless you repent, you will be cast into hell.”
The pro-abortion group responded with shaking fists and shouts of their own: “Right to life/You lie/You don’t care if women die.” Later they chanted: “Obama.” As the tension escalated, nearly three dozen police officers descended on the intersection, creating a buffer that resembled a militarized zone.
As the crowd grew angrier, I asked pro-life activist Michael Marcavage about the effectiveness of his methods. “We go to holocaust museums and see photos of murder,” he said. “Abortion is a holocaust.”
Megan Wilson wasn’t persuaded. The 17-year-old high-school senior from Washington state traveled here with the Junior Statesmen of America to attend convention events and learn about politics. She grew visibly shaken at the pro-life activists: “I think it’s hypocrisy of the highest form to say that a fetus matters more than a human life.”
It was an argument repeated throughout the convention. One of the most aggressively pro-abortion political conventions in history painted pro-life supporters as anti-birth-control extremists bent on hurting women and disregarding the needy. It’s unclear whether Democrats will carry that theme through the general election season, but it’s an idea that rallied the party’s base in Charlotte.
Wilson summarized part of the argument: “There are people out there with fully formed brains and hearts and lungs who are dying—who live on our streets in poverty. They should have rights, but they don’t because no one cares about them.”
A few blocks away, a Bible verse hung over the door of The King’s Kitchen restaurant: “He who has pity on the poor lends to the Lord, and He will pay back what he has given.”
Inside the popular downtown eatery, Phillip Lewis was busy frying chicken and serving up heaping plates of collard greens and creamed potatoes. Less than 18 months ago, Lewis lived on the streets of downtown Charlotte, bouncing between a homeless shelter and a housing ministry.
After Lewis met restaurant owner Jim Noble—a pro-life evangelical with two other successful restaurants in Charlotte—Noble offered him a job working in The King’s Kitchen. The restaurant donates its profits (and much of its food) to feeding the homeless, and devotes behind-the-scenes efforts to mentoring needy men and women in need of jobs.
Lewis started by washing dishes. A year later, he is the restaurant’s best line cook. He rents a duplex nearby, and dreams of opening his own diner. Lewis says Noble’s spiritual and practical help compelled him to succeed: “If you’re really going to help somebody, you have to care.”
Noble’s work is one example of several Christian ministries in the city that care for the needy. A local pregnancy care center serves thousands of clients each year. Lois’ Lodge—a Christian maternity home—offers housing for women facing unplanned pregnancies. And Brookstone School—a nearby, inner-city Christian school—serves needy children in grades K-6 with low-cost education that produces better results than many public schools.
It’s the kind of person-to-person care that Noble says really helps people. “I don’t think that Jesus would be walking around carrying signs and yelling,” he said of the more strident activists at the convention. “I think He’d go to the heart of the problem, which is what we’re trying to do. We’re just looking for those that nobody cares about.”
If Democrats didn’t paint that picture of conservatives at the convention, they also didn’t shy away from attacking on social issues. Indeed, the party that once downplayed its support of legalized abortion and same-sex “marriage” made those issues centerpieces of its message in Charlotte.
It’s a gamble in a Democratic Party that has as many as 21 million members who say they’re pro-life, and in a country that has passed gay-marriage bans in at least 31 states. It’s also a gamble in an election that may hinge on the economy.
The question ahead of presidential debates that begin on Oct. 3: Will a far-left social agenda hurt Democrats during a time when Americans seem focused on economic problems? And will conservative Republicans respond to the accusations of extremism that may continue until November?
Accusations of extremism began early at the convention. While pro-abortion and pro-life demonstrators clashed on a street corner the first day, an unfolding Planned Parenthood rally offered glimpses of that group’s political strategy.
Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards ignored the central concern of Republicans and conservatives who oppose federal funding for Planned Parenthood: The organization is the nation’s largest abortion provider.
Instead, Richards asked the crowd: “Can you believe we’re fighting in 2012 over the right of women in America to get birth control?” She declared: “That’s exactly what this election is about.”
To underscore the point, the rally’s emcee wore a costume that looked like a package of birth control pills. Volunteers distributed condoms to the crowd (and in the surrounding streets) inscribed with the message: “PROTECT YOURSELF FROM ROMNEY & RYAN IN THIS ELECTION.”
In the nightly meetings at the nearby Time Warner Cable Arena, a parade of speakers each night included remarks that carried implicit or overt references to abortion.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick declared: “We believe that freedom means keeping government out of our most private affairs, including out of a woman’s decision whether to keep an unwanted pregnancy and everybody’s decision about whom to marry.”
Nancy Keenan of NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League Pro-Choice America) praised Obama and warned that Romney would “overturn Roe v. Wade and sign into law a wave of outrageous restrictions on a woman’s ability to make decisions about her pregnancy.”
Richards of Planned Parenthood used her podium time to warn again that Republicans want to restrict access to birth control. And in a primetime speaking spot, pro-abortion activist Sandra Fluke called a future with Republicans an “offensive, obsolete relic of our past,” and said that Romney won’t stand up to the “extreme, bigoted voices in his own party.”
Meanwhile, back on the streets of downtown Charlotte, extreme voices of pro-abortion activists abounded. At a mid-week pro-life demonstration at the city’s central intersection, nearly 40 pro-life activists carried signs with pictures of a baby in the womb, and the statement: “I am a person.”
As they began a simple program with a handful of reserved speakers, a group of pro-abortion supporters surrounded the group to block passersby from seeing the demonstration. They chanted and carried signs that declared: “Keep Abortion Legal.” Two women sang an offensive song about female anatomy. One man shouted: “I’m rallying to save all life—not just white fetus life.”
Nearby, a 29-year-old woman from Portland, Ore., who identified herself as an anarchist named “John Doe,” explained her objection to the pro-life position: “No one should be forced to carry another human being to term.” She added: “By medical definitions, a fetus is actually a parasite that lives inside a host.”
Another activist, Sarah Shanks, helps pro-abortion protesters form barriers around pro-life sidewalk counselors at abortion clinics in Washington, D.C. She called pregnancy “nine months of a life-threatening issue,” and added: “To ignore the fact that women have to be the vessels to carry these babies—or fetuses—to term is offensive.”
Shanks—who is white—said she helps women facing poverty and other difficult situations. She pointed to the pro-lifers: “These white, middle-class people have no idea what that kind of situation would be like because they’re too privileged.”
A few feet away, Erika Barnes, a 19-year-old black woman from Charlotte, stood on a small stool talking about how she nearly had an abortion earlier this year. Today, her round belly shows she’s eight months pregnant.
Barnes says a pair of pro-life supporters outside a local abortion clinic asked if she was sure about getting an abortion: “My answer was no.” An ultrasound made her choose life: “I was able to see his face.”
Now, a few weeks before her son’s delivery, Barnes said she’s thankful for her decision: “I can’t say I have everything figured out, because I don’t. But I know what I’m doing is right. In a big way, I feel like my son has saved my life.”
Andrea Hines—a local pro-life activist who planned the event—talked about her deep regret over an abortion she had in 1977. (Later, when I mentioned my age to Hines, her eyes looked sad when she replied: “My daughter would almost be your age.”)
Despite the intense counter protest, Hines said the event’s message was simple: “A person in the womb needs to be identified as a person, and have their rights protected.”
The Democratic platform doesn’t embrace that view. Instead, the party’s document declares that it “strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to make decisions regarding her pregnancy, including a safe and legal abortion, regardless of her ability to pay.” Though the platform once said that abortions should be “rare,” this year’s document excludes that word, just as it did in 2008.
For Democrats who consider themselves pro-life, that language is confounding. Kristen Day, executive director of the pro-life group Democrats for Life, said her organization asked the platform committee to include language at least acknowledging that the party includes pro-life members. The committee refused.
Day says that alienates as many as one-third of Democrats who identity as pro-life, according to a Gallup poll: “That’s 21 million Democrats who are disenfranchised from the party because their views are not included.”
Though it’s difficult to discern whether the pro-abortion emphasis could cost the party significant votes this fall, Day says she’s hearing from Democrats who say they won’t vote for the president because of the party’s strong abortion push this year.
For pro-life Democrats like Fernando Cabrera, the party’s support of both abortion and gay “marriage” is a source of deep tension. The Liberty University graduate and New York City pastor is a member of the New York City Council. He was also a delegate to the Democratic convention in Charlotte.
The Sunday before the convention started, Cabrera delivered an impassioned sermon at the conservative First Baptist Church in downtown Charlotte. He decried Obama’s support for “gay marriage,” and the Democratic Party’s plan to add same-sex “marriage” to its platform for the first time. He warned: “Darkness has come upon our land.”
He urged the Charlotte congregation to “vote their values,” adding that a vote is a serious commitment: “When you put someone into office, you are making a covenant with that elected official.”
After the service, Cabrera said he stays in the party because of its commitment to help the poor, and because he wants to “lend voice to the other members of the party who are concerned about the direction it’s going.” (North Carolina passed a pro-marriage amendment in May with 61 percent of the vote. Obama endorsed gay “marriage” the day after the amendment passed.)
I asked Cabrera: If voters or delegates are making a covenant with their elected officials, what are the implications of making a covenant with Obama when it comes to social issues?
“Well, this is a point of frustration and a point of contention that many people who are in my position are feeling right now,” he said. “And to be honest with you, it’s a struggle that I’m trying to resolve.”
During the convention, most of the party didn’t seem to struggle with the issue. A bevy of speakers—including Obama—openly endorsed gay “marriage,” and 19-year-old Iowa delegate Zach Wahls received a standing ovation when he began his convention speech by declaring: “I was raised by my two moms.”
The party’s official calendar didn’t include events featuring pro-marriage Democrats, and only a handful of people showed up at a press conference of black pastors opposed to same-sex “marriage” (see sidebar.)
In the end, with little public objection, the Democratic Party passed a platform that opposes any federal or state amendments to protect traditional marriage, and calls for the “full repeal of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act.”
The only dissenting voice during the convention’s nightly meetings came at the very end when Cardinal Timothy Dolan offered the closing prayer after Obama’s speech: “Empower us with Your grace so that we might resist the temptation to replace the moral law with idols of our own making or to remake those institutions You have given us for the nurturing of life and community.”
If Democrats were willing to push abortion and the re-making of marriage aggressively, it’s unclear if the strategy will pay off in November. Some worry that it will cost the party votes.
But others wonder if the strategy serves as a distraction from the economic malaise that grips the country. Sandwiched in between calls for abortion rights and gay “marriage,” some speakers also warned that Romney would give tax breaks to the rich and raise taxes on the middle class. (Romney says he won’t pursue that path, but he hasn’t explained fully how his tax plan would work.)
Democrats didn’t fully explain their economic plan either. Former President Bill Clinton’s popular speech was heavy on numbers, but light on how Democrats would forge a path forward. Obama’s speech was even lighter: He spoke of initiatives already underway, and asked voters to rally around a set of goals for the next four years, but he said little about how he’d accomplish those goals. In the end, he came back to a theme of his 2008 campaign: “My fellow citizens, you were the change.”
That leaves both candidates a daunting task as presidential debates begin Oct. 3: Clearly articulate a specific plan that will resonate with voters worried about a sputtering economy and a spiraling national debt.
Back at The King’s Kitchen restaurant in Charlotte, owner and chef Jim Noble wasn’t talking about economics or politics a few days after the convention. Instead, on a Tuesday afternoon, he was sitting on a bar stool near the back of the restaurant with an iPad and a glass of sweet tea, conducting a Bible study.
Nearly 20 men and women, mostly local homeless folks, come five days a week for a Bible study and a meal. They listened intently for an hour before filing out with boxes full of fried chicken, sweet potatoes, French fries, and bottled water.
The restaurant—which functions as a nonprofit organization because of its charitable giving and mentoring program—also delivers food to other groups, including a Christian housing ministry for homeless men. Most days, it’s full of well-dressed professionals from downtown Charlotte who come because the menu of local Southern cuisine is good.
Beyond discussions of the government’s role, Noble says caring for the poor is a biblical mandate: “This is not an option as a believer. This is something we’re called to do—to take care of the widows and orphans and poor.”
For Noble, taking care of the poor means giving opportunities for meaningful work to men and women struggling with problems like homelessness. Others have just emerged from prison or rehab programs. The workers (usually just a few at a time) attend classes on leadership and budgeting, and go to a church that meets in the restaurant on Sunday mornings.
“We are dealers in biblical hope,” says Noble. “God has given us the gospel of Christ, which is the only answer to man’s problems.”
That may be a lost message during an intense political season, but the couple dozen men and women who came for Bible study and dinner recently left with this reminder from Noble: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but man shall live by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
At the Democratic National Convention, Catholics for Choice (CFC) distributed copies of its quarterly magazine titled Conscience. Inside, Sara Hutchinson, domestic program director at CFC, writes that “conservative religious advocates” are redefining religious liberty and undoing the “right to contraceptive access.” Religious liberty, according to her definition, applies to individuals only, not institutions like churches, and therefore institutions should not receive conscience protections from the mandate to provide contraception coverage to employees.
Hutchinson has formed a coalition of 53 groups (from the American Civil Liberties Union to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force to Jewish Women International) to defend the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate from charges that it abuses religious freedom.
A Catholic reporter asked Hutchinson, “What if you’re an individual business owner?” referring to business owners objecting to paying for contraceptive coverage.
“You are serving as an institution in that capacity,” said Hutchinson, and do not have religious freedom protection from providing contraceptives. So far, one court in Colorado has disagreed with that constitutional analysis, siding with a Catholic business owner who sued over the contraceptive mandate.
At least two dozen institutions and business owners have sued the federal government because they object to paying for contraceptive or abortifacient coverage, and even the Catholic Health Association, one of the most touted religious backers of the healthcare overhaul and initially of the contraceptive mandate, later objected. The group said the mandate reflected an “unacceptable change in federal policy regarding religious beliefs.”
Harry Knox, the head of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice who also served as an adviser for President Obama’s White House Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Office, joined Hutchinson at the convention.
He said women must have the religious freedom to use contraceptives or have an abortion. As an example, he described “a child who has been conceived and is so sick that to continue a pregnancy would be a terrible injustice to that child, because she or he is in so much pain in the womb. ... To bring it to term would only force more suffering on it.”
Meanwhile, the Obama campaign has rolled out a new “Catholics for Obama” ad that avoids the subject of religious liberty entirely. Hutchinson told me that the election would not alter or influence the work of the organization, but the organization’s tax documents show that the group receives about double the contributions during election years.
Robert George, a Catholic and a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University, described Hutchinson’s posse as “silly as well as ideological.”
“If the Vegetarian Society were being forced by a government mandate to serve meat at their annual ‘animals are our friends, don’t eat them’ fundraising banquet, people on the left would suddenly discover that institutions based on shared convictions have rights of conscience,” he wrote in an email. “Their problem is not in recognizing that institutions have rights of conscience; their problem is in recognizing that institutions whose teachings they don’t agree with have rights of conscience.”
About half a dozen African-American pastors, representing the Coalition of African-American Pastors, convened a press conference at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., to condemn President Obama’s, and the party’s, embrace of gay “marriage.” Undermining traditional marriage, said Rev. William Owens Sr., “will further destroy the black family. … How could the black president take this thing that is very immoral and endorse it? Why don’t they take that same energy and try to get these boys off the corners, try to get them off drugs, try to get them in college?”
The pastors were willing to criticize the president on the marriage issue, but not necessarily work against him in the election. When reporters questioned the pastors about their political stance, they wouldn’t say that they wouldn’t vote for President Obama. “We still want to dialogue with the president and with the Democratic Party,” said Owens. “We have not looked at the Republicans. As I said, I have some criticisms for them too, as to how they address the black community. … They have said, ‘Well, there’s nothing we can do to get the black vote,’ so they just ignore us. But President Obama has just taken the black vote for granted. It’s really the same thing.”
When a reporter asked Bishop David Allen Hall, one of the pastors, if he would consider backing Romney, he was emphatic: “I’m not working for Mitt Romney!” The pastors said they mainly wanted President Obama to be aware of their opposition to his stance on marriage.
“I think [Democrats] have done what they wanted to do because they thought they had the black vote in their pocket,” said Owens. At least at the convention, the pastors didn’t seem to give Democrats any reason to think they didn’t.