Although the Democratic National Convention officially started Monday, a more significant event occurred 24 hours before at a religious service held several blocks away from the main convention hall.

The occasion was an Interfaith Gathering, the first time this kind of religious event has ever been held at the party’s national convention.

Clergy of several faiths spoke to the men and women, who more than half filled a theater at the Colorado Convention Center, one of the national convention venues.

But none of them matched the electric moment provided by Bishop Charles E. Blake, minister of Los Angeles’ 24,000-plus member West Angeles Church of God in Christ and one of the nation’s most influential African-Americans.

His subject was “Our Sacred Responsibility to Our Children.”

In the middle of his talk, Blake asked about children who had not yet been born.

He noted that he was “a pro-life Democrat” who had “humanitarian and philosophical differences” with many in his party.

“Surely,” he said, “we cannot be pleased with the millions … of surgically ended pregnancies.” Abortion, he said, shows “disregard for the lives of the unborn.”

Yet, he said, he will support Sen. Barack Obama because the Democratic Party and its policies will best serve the nation “and the people of the world.” Republicans, he said, talk about “their loyalty to the unborn but they refuse to admit their responsibility to those who have been born.”

Blake’s words pointed to one of obstacles faced by the Democrats as they prepare for the fall campaign with Obama in a polling dead heat with the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain.

While abortion is not a central issue in a campaign that is now dominated by economic concerns, it is a matter of great symbolism.

A key part of the undecided Democratic constituency are Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants who oppose abortion. Among them are working men and women who fear McCain’s economic policies but feel a cultural divide with the Democrats. For decades, the Democrats have been staunchly pro-choice and supportive of Roe v. Wade. In fact, this has become a fundamental precept of the party.

In 1992, the late governor of Pennsylvania, Robert Casey, was denied the chance to speak to the Democratic convention because he was anti-abortion. As Nat Hentoff wrote in the New Republic when Casey died in 2000:

“Casey was not asked to speak. In fact, he and his Pennsylvania delegation were exiled to the farthest reaches of Madison Square Garden because Casey was pro-life. It didn’t matter that, under his leadership, state contracts to minority- and women-owned firms had increased more than 1,500 percent in five years, or that he had appointed more female Cabinet members than any Democratic governor in the country, or that he had appointed the first black woman ever to sit on a state Supreme Court. Ron Brown, chief convention organizer and the Democratic Party’s symbol of minority inclusion, told Casey, ‘Your views are out of line with those of most Americans.’ “

At this convention, and in the campaign ahead, the Democrats will try to bridge the gap. Casey’s son, Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who like his father is against abortion, will speak to the convention Tuesday night.

And Obama’s running mate, Sen. Joseph Biden, is the son of a Catholic working-class Irish Pennsylvania family. If Obama doesn’t carry the blue-collar precincts of Pennsylvania and other states he lost to Sen. Hillary Clinton, it won’t be for lack of trying.

Still, the Democrats are dancing around the issue, not wanting to offend their pro-choice base or the culturally conservative voters they need to win over.

The party platform supports abortion as well as education and birth control services that would prevent unintended pregnancies.

Obama is dancing, too. When the Rev. Rick Warren asked him when life began, Obama said the answer is “above my pay grade.” The answer, sounding as though it had come from some smarmy campaign writer, isn’t good enough for this election, with its clash of cultural values and economic needs.

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