President Obama and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) are receiving some criticism over the new head of their religious outreach. In October, the DNC announced Derrick Harkins, senior pastor of Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., would lead the 2012 effort. Harkins actively promotes progressive policies, and he also serves on the boards of the National Association of Evangelicals, World Relief, and Faith in Public Life.
His link to evangelicals may be a strength, but it is also causing controversy among some in the Democratic Party's liberal base because of his views on marriage and abortion.
Blowback began when Religion Dispatches senior editor Sarah Posner reported her interview with Harkins from several months ago. Harkins worked closely with the Circle of Protection and Sojourners to lobby for the continuation of anti-poverty programs. Following a press conference held in opposition to the Values Voters Summit, Posner interviewed Harkins about hot button social issues. Posner began with a discussion of same-sex marriage, in which Harkins spoke about the complexities involving the legal status of gay couples. When asked if he supported same-sex marriage, Harkins said, "No, no, no. But again, I'm not a bomb-thrower in terms of saying things that will get a rise out of a crowd because I just don't think that's, again, intellectually honest."
Harkins's position became less clear after a petition advocating same-sex marriage surfaced. AmericaBlog, which covers LGBT politics, reported that Harkins was one of many D.C. pastors to sign a statement supporting same-sex marriage in the District. Harkins's name is listed, but he informed Christianity Today that the petition is erroneous. Harkins did not sign that petition or any other statement supporting same-sex marriage. When the issue was being discussed in D.C., he did not participate. His name was included on the petition without his knowledge or consent.
The DNC sent an e-mail assuring that Harkins supports civil unions for gay couples.
"The crux of Rev. Harkins's political perspective is a fundamental belief in the equal and inherent value of people of all identities and backgrounds—that is exactly why the DNC has tapped him to lead our party's faith outreach program," the e-mail said. "Do I wish Rev. Harkins was on the record as an active supporter of same-sex marriage? Of course I do—just like I wish 100 percent of the American public was in favor of same-sex marriage, including my President." (Americablog attributed this e-mail to Rick Stafford, head of the DNC's LGBT caucus.)
Believe Out Loud interim director Gwen Ashby said Harkins's appointment was disappointing. "It was with a sinking heart, and not a little anger, that I read last week about the appointment of Rev. Derrick Harkins as the new faith outreach director for the [DNC]. Turns out Rev. Harkins, who has a long list of Democratic-leaning affiliations, is opposed to marriage equality," said Ashby. "What a missed opportunity." Believe Out Loud is a coalition "working together to help the Protestant community become more welcoming to gays and lesbians."
Harkins also avoided taking a traditional pro-life or pro-choice position on abortion. In his Religion Dispatches interview, Harkins said he opposed defunding Planned Parenthood but not some restrictions on abortion by state governments, and called for a "conversation" on abortion that included providing social support for women facing an abortion decision: