Dems’ New Faith Outreach Director “Pro-Life” and Against Marriage Equality (Updated)

This post has been updated.

Yesterday the Democratic National Committee announced the hiring of the Rev. Derrick Harkins to head up the party’s outreach to “people of faith.” Harkins, the senior pastor of Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., also serves on the board of the National Association of Evangelicals and its humanitarian arm, World Relief, and on the board of the Democratic-leaning Faith in Public Life.

Last June, during Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition (FFC) conference held in Washington last June, Harkins was one of a group of faith leaders who participated in a press conference billed as “pushback” on the religious right, and challenging the support of many FFC participants for Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan. (I wrote about efforts of Democratic-leaning faith groups to challenge Ryan’s budget proposal at the FFC here.) The press conference Harkins spoke at was advertised as “mainstream religious voices are challenging the Religious Right’s adherence to free-market ideology and culture of selfishness over the common good.”

The press conference included, in addition to Harkins, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, the Rev. Jennifer Butler of Faith in Public Life, and Fr. Clete Kiley of the union group UNITE/Here. It did focus on economic issues, but I asked the group whether they were also pushing back on the FFC’s stance on the religious right’s hot button social issues, which were also prominent at the FFC conference.

I talked after the press conference with Harkins about his views on same-sex marriage, the religious right’s quest to defund Planned Parenthood, and his views on efforts to restrict abortion. Harkins, who has been supportive of “common ground” efforts to “reduce the number of abortions,” like the Ryan-DeLauro bill introduced in 2009, said he’s “absolutely pro-life,” but opposed the right’s efforts to shut down Planned Parenthood. Harkins did not oppose state efforts to restrict access to abortion: “would I advocate for further access to abortions? Well, no, that’s not in my wheelhouse. But I would say if you’re going to have that conversation, you better also have a conversation that speaks to the situations that apply to that would prompt a family, especially a poor family, or a woman to seek out an abortion.”

The Democratic Party’s 2008 platform reads, “The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right.”

On marriage equality, Harkins told me he opposes same-sex marriage, but hopes for a place of “common understanding” of a “vexing question.”

The full transcript is below the jump.

Q: Everyone [at the Faith and Freedom Coalition] is talking about the budget. But they’re also talking about a lot of other things. Some of the biggest applause lines come from discussing same-sex marriage or what they call traditional marriage, defunding Planned Parenthood, getting rid of what they believe is abortion funding in health care reform. Denigrating separation of church and state. All of these things. Do you think that there’s organized pushback from other faith traditions other than the religious right against those things, in addition to the budget?

A: I wouldn’t characterize it as pushback. I was at a conference last week at the U.S. Conference of [Catholic] Bishops that included representatives from most of the quote traditional faith groups more so leaning in the conservative realm about the issue of same-sex marriage. And the thing that I think was impressive about that meeting was the commitment not to simply throw bombshells, not simply to say things that would garner applause, but to commit to the hard work of figuring out how, in a pluralistic society, do we espouse or we understand to be a sacred institution, and how does that get transposed against the rest of society and culture. That’s not easy. There’s no simple answer to that. I think it is a concern, it is intellectually dishonest to simply say that in 2011, we’re simply going to stand for traditional marriage. What does that mean? What does that mean with regard to same-sex couples who’ve adopted, what does that mean for same-sex couples when it comes to medical information.

Q: I think they’re probably opposed to that too.

A: Right, but the reality is, it is what it is, and that clock’s not going to get turned back. I mean, you don’t unadopt a child who’s been part of a family for however many years. You don’t take away the fact that if somebody’s in the hospital, that they’re partner has a right to—you know. So my point is that is dishonest to throw out simple applause lines and to act as though that’s not a difficult question. And you’re talking to somebody who see it is as – I don’t have a pat answer to that.

Q: So theologically you think it’s a difficult question.

A: Absolutely, it’s a vexing question, absolutely. I would like to think that there’s some point of – well, not even compromise, but some place of common understanding, but that’s hard. It’s very difficult.

Q: So you’re not a supporter of same-sex marriage yourself?

A: 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.

Q: Let me ask you this about the Planned Parenthood defunding. I’m getting the eyeroll on that.

A: Oh, gosh. What about the at-risk pregnancies that Planned Parenthood addresses? What about the children who are born and need neo-natal care that Planned Parenthood addresses? What about the programs that speak to responsible behavior that Planned Parenthood espouses? All of those things are part of the Planned Parenthood.

Q: What about preventing unintended pregnancies?

A: Well, again, I’m not a Catholic, and Father Kiley is not around so I don’t want to speak for him, so, yes, preventing unintended pregnancies, which is different from pregnancy termination, is absolutely part of their larger rubric. The issue of Planned Parenthood funding through government funding, funding abortions is a chimera. It’s just not the case. The Hyde Amendment, the Executive Order that the president himself signed, all of those things speak to the fact that, no, there is no federal funding for abortion. And I guess it’s vexing, because it is what it is, that’s the reality. And to continue and to say we’re going to do away with Planned Parenthood because somehow then we therefore end abortion is a false premise.

Q: That wouldn’t end abortion anyway.

A: Correct.

Q: It could create conditions for more abortions.

A: We’re talking about an entity that has done much, again, in regards to – whether it’s high-risk pregnancies, prevention of pregnancies, whatever you take away an entity that’s had a very effective track record in that regard. And again, you’re talking to somebody who’s absolutely pro-life. I think for me, I would be more concerned about an entity like Planned Parenthood not being on the scene.

Q: How do you feel about what’s going on in many states, legislation to restrict access to abortion? Do you support that?

A: Well, you know, it’s funny. I would say that in a state-by-state context, I’m going to really sound like I’m tilting to the right, I’m going to be respectful of each of those individual kind of dialogues, however I do think that to broadly restrict access is not helpful if that is what happens alone, if there are not alternatives that also are put in place, if there aren’t things that speak to, again, prevention of pregnancies, if there aren’t things that speak to neo-natal care, if there aren’t things that speak to pre-natal care. All of those things that need to be part of that larger conversation. What I say to somebody, would I advocate for further access to abortions? Well, no, that’s not in my wheelhouse. But I would say if you’re going to have that conversation, you better also have a conversation that speaks to the situations that apply to that would prompt a family, especially a poor family, or a woman to seek out an abortion.

UPDATE: The Rev. Carlton Veazey, president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, issues this statement:

Reverend Derrick Harkins has been a strong supporter of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice’s National Black Church Initiative (BCI) as a member of its Advisory Board. The Obama Administration is to be commended for naming Reverend Harkins to lead faith outreach for the Democratic Party as it heads into the 2012 election cycle.

Reverend Harkins is a progressive, dynamic pastor who has helped to advance the BCI goals of providing faith-based sexuality education in African American churches and reducing unintended teen pregnancy in Black communities. In doing so, he has provided a valuable service to the Black Church.

Religion in this country has become increasingly politicized and polarized. Reverend Harkins may help bridge this divide by bringing to this position connections with both conservative and progressive religious groups.

On the issue of reproductive choice, although he and I have different theological views on the moral appropriateness of abortion, he is committed to improving the health of young African Americans through sex education and pregnancy prevention.