The Democratic National Committee announced this week that it hired the Rev. Derrick Harkins to serve as director of DNC's Faith Outreach.
DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz welcomed Harkins, stating, "I look forward to working with Rev. Harkins to build on the successes we've had as a party in reaching out to people of faith from all walks of life and backgrounds."
Harkins is the senior pastor at the historic Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington D.C. The church is one of the District's oldest African-American churches and has hosted many prominent figures including President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
Harkins serves on the boards of the National Association of Evangelicals, interfaith coalition Faith in Public Life and World Relief. According to his church biography, he regularly advocates for comprehensive immigration reform and the global battle against HIV/AIDS. He is also part of the Circle of Protection, which has been endorsed by thousands of pastors in a stand against budget cuts that hurt the poor and vulnerable.
He will be taking over from Joshua DuBois who conducted Obama's 2008 religious outreach. Due to DuBois' efforts, DNC Executive Director Patrick Gaspard said Obama saw electorate gains among Catholics, evangelicals, mainline Protestants and other communities of faith. Harkins said in the DNC's press release that he plans to engage religious Americans on immigration reform, Obama's new health care law and the role of religion in public life. In a phone interview with The Christian Post, Harkins detailed his vision for the DNC's 2012 faith outreach.
CP: How where you approached for this job and what led you to accept the position?
Harkins: In conversations with the staff here at the Democratic National Committee, which took place over a period of sometime, I began to think about ... how I could be most effective and most helpful in moving toward ... conveying the president's values, the values of the DNC as well, but the president's values and how important they are in this conversation, and then on that level how we could be successful in 2012. All those things came together for me and the leadership here at the DNC. It was a match. It was really the result of some good, productive conversations over a period of time.
CP: What are the responsibilities of your new position?
Harkins: In large measure, to convey to the faith community the priorities and values that the administration has already implemented and [is] very much engaged in; to show that those values and priorities are important to the faith community or to certainly make sure that those are highlighted for them; [and] to develop productive kinds of relationships with members of the faith community so we can be a resource in this larger conversation as well. Leading to the election, [I want] to continue to build and expand on both relations that are already existent in the faith community and to develop new ones. When I say build new relationships, I mean to help them to clearly understand and see what the president's priorities are, what the DNC's priorities are, and how those priorities are helpful in the goals that many in the faith community are about day in and day out.
CP: Why did you want to be involved in the president's campaign and the DNC?
Harkins: I really think that the priorities and the work, that the emphasis that has been expressed by the president and this administration and even the Democratic Party as a whole are things I certainly believe in, and I wanted to in some ways be an active and productive part of that conversation. This opportunity made sense to engage in.
CP: Your DNC bio describes you as having ties to the African-American church, evangelicals and the progressive faith community. Those are three very different groups. How do you plan to serve all three of these groups as an employee of the DNC?
Harkins: I have been very fortunate to have very genuine, very real and productive relationships in all of those realms that you mentioned and I've been able to do that in leadership roles that I've had here before. I am hopeful and confident that I'll be able to do that moving into this responsibility [by] talking about those things that are of concern, of priority, of interest. A great example: immigration reform is an issue of keen importance in the progressive faith community, but also in the evangelical faith community. The National Association of Evangelicals has made one of the most far-reaching and significant statements in support of immigration reform. They also have a wonderful track record on creation care or environmental issues. So, interestingly enough, there is a lot of common ground that is already in place. I will continue that conversation.
CP: Given the high unemployment rate, his waning support from the Congressional Black Caucus and the possibility of an African-American conservative vying for the White House, why should African-Americans remain in the president's corner?
Harkins: I think that the track record speaks for itself.
When voters ask the question, what do I value most? What things are most important to me? Who is serving those purposes? Somebody who is trying to make sure that health care is available and affordable to the middle class, to the working class, even impoverished Americans, is that person working in my self-interest or is someone who would rather see health care out of reach because of the relationships that [it] would prevent? … Would somebody who is concerned about teachers and firefighters, having not only the viability of the job market they should have, is that somebody who is working in my self-interest? Or somebody who would oppose funding, the employment of teachers and firefighters as we just saw [Thursday] night?
I think you should ask those questions. Of course there are issues of vigorous discussion. I deeply respect all of the members of Congress who want to make sure that those deep, profound priorities for them are addressed. That's an ongoing process. At the same time, you have to ask the question ... do I want to proceed in a way that [causes] concern for the average American? Do I want to proceed in a way that ... would provide for the average working American? Or, do we want to go in another direction?
I think there are a lot of initiatives that are already part of the track record of this administration that would speak to that. I would say to anybody, ask yourself that question: What efforts and what priorities are in my best interest? And I am quite confident that the answer is to remain with the current administration [and] with the president.
CP: You mentioned in your statement that "justice, fairness and compassion are at the core of religious voters' concerns." Describe how the Democratic principles exemplify those three principles?
Harkins: When you talk about compassion, one of the priorities that certainly has resonance in the faith community, the administration that the president has spearheaded is [the] promoting of responsible fatherhood and strong communities. When you talk about compassion and you talk about having an awareness of what it is that sustains and strengthens a community, it's those human-scale efforts, I think, [that are compassionate]. You know the government does things in a big way but at the same time, it always boils down to the individuals and their concerns. That kind of initiative speaks to compassion.
When you talk about the issue of justice, again, the administration has worked really hard to promote interfaith dialogue and cooperation. That has ramifications across the board. Just in the basic understanding that we live in a nation of plurality when it comes to faith traditions and the idea that we respect that, we honor that, we even celebrate that is in the accord with the understanding of justice. Making sure that there is justice in the way people are treated and regardless of their faith traditions is an incredibly important point which is something that the president and certainly the Democratic Party has espoused all in all.
CP: Many would argue that some key tenants of the Democrats' political agenda – legalized gay marriage and accessible contraceptives and abortion – do not mix with Christianity. How do you plan to draw evangelicals, Protestants and Catholics to the party that represent these policies?
Harkins: It's important to note that back in 2008, the president garnered the largest number of evangelical voters of any Democrat I think since evangelical voters were identified as such. Also, the president did strongly and quite well with Catholic voters. So I think that those issues, as challenging as they can be, are issues that people certainly wrestled with and considered on a personal level, but at the same time, I think that the president and the Democratic Party has always indicated an appreciation for and a regard for the personal freedoms and liberties that one brings to those very personal circumstances.
The landscape, I think, is one that includes people of faith and people of given positions but it also includes all Americans and we have to part of all the conversation in its entirety. Are there some delicate issues to address in terms of different perspectives? Of course, but I think we always have to remember we're having this conversation with the entirety of a wonderfully diverse nation where there are a wide array of perspectives and we honor and respect that.
CP: You position with the DNC puts you in a position to influence the Christian and faith communities. How will you influence the DNC as a pastor of a Baptist church and a board member of the NAE, Faith in Public Life and World Relief?
Harkins: I think it just makes the case that the Democratic Party is welcoming of people of faith, that people of faith have a place and a home, if you will, in the Democratic Party, and we already know that and are thankful for that. I think my presence here establishes that fact.
Contrary to what some might think, the presence of the faith community, the vitality of the faith community, is something that the Democratic Party certainly regards and appreciates. I think that has been clear. The president has no hesitancy or difficulty talking about his own faith and how it grounds him and anchors him in what he does and so I think there is a real consistency there. … The perspective of other people that the White House is not welcoming of the faith community, I just don't think that's true, and it has really has never been.
CP: Is that what you think is President Barack Obama's current image among Christians? And how will you help him better project his faith for voters to see?
Harkins: I think, to be very frank, I think that the president, if you go back and play the videotape, you will see that the president has, on more than a few occasions, expressed clearly and profoundly his own personal faith identity as a Christian, that on a number of occasions to his great credit, he [has spoken] to it as part of his personal make-up. At the same time, in regards to the broad faith tradition of the United States, he has never had any hesitancy of making that statement and again in a very sustentative and real and theologically tight way.
I jokingly say that … he was, during a backyard gathering last year out in the Midwest, [giving] a profound three-point sermon on his personal convictions as a Christian. That again, speaks to means to me of the fact that this has been a part of the president's make-up all along.
So, I think stating what is already existent, reminding people that those values are present in his daily walk, but at the same time, the larger set of values that ought to guide this nation aren't in conflict with communities of faith. My job is to state that and to remind people that the president's been doing a pretty good job of doing that all along.
CP: When do you start and what is your first plan of action?
Harkins: What we're doing now is assessing how we can be most effective across the board with the larger set of issues with campaign strategy and so we're in that mode. Relationally speaking, I certainly am taking advantage of the fact that I've got a great number of good personal relationships in the broad faith community with faith leaders of all traditions, and [I will] establish those kind of relationships and we'll move forth in a progressive and proactive way around how we're going to be effective in conveying the message ... that the values people of faith hold are the values that have certainly been part of this administration and certainly will continue to be.
The president's own family is something that people can relate to. He is a solid family man, a husband and father which certainly resonates with a lot of people in faith communities.
So I think those are the kind of things we will continue to convey, and we'll look for ways to do that effectively.