The latest Times Sunday Magazine ran a long feature on black Pentecostal preacher Leah Daughtry, leader of a small flock in Washington, D.C. Why? Because she's also chief of staff to Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and chief executive of the Democratic Convention in Denver in late August. The article's headline asked: "Can Leah Daughtry Bring Faith to the Party?"
The Times surely hopes so, judging by the prominence of this story by contributing writer Daniel Bergner. Although his story is more nuanced that the fingers-crossed (literally?) headline, it's hard to believe that, say, a fundamentalist preacher with Republican ties who believes, as Daughtry does, in the teaching of evolution and is opposed to gay marriage would have had 5,100 respectful words devoted to him.
Bergner set the scene:
Leah Daughtry slipped off her stiletto-heel shoes at the House of the Lord Church in Brooklyn, stepped from a pastor's chair to the pulpit and shouted, "I am on the rise!" She wore a long black tunic with gold buttons that ran from her high collar almost to the carpet. Her graying hair was shorn tight to her dark brown scalp. She always preaches in bare feet in order to "de-self," she had told me, and to let God's spirit and words rush through her unimpeded. "I am on the rise!" she erupted again.
African-American, with little copper-rimmed glasses adorning an unlined round face, Daughtry is a part-time preacher and full-time political operative. She serves as chief of staff to Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. In the spring of last year, Dean appointed her chief executive of the party's convention; though she will now be collaborating with Barack Obama's team, she is in charge of orchestrating the event next month in Denver - of making sure that everything runs right, that buses have enough slots to park in, that people have enough hotel rooms to sleep in and that the millions watching the convention on TV are captivated and inspired by the four-day-long show. She is a mostly self-effacing manager on an immense scale.
But on many Sundays she is a Pentecostal preacher with her toes naked on the floor and her voice filled with a power that she says is not her own. Straight from the start of her sermon on a Sunday afternoon in June, she looked nearly helpless, beyond self-management, truly overcome by a force coursing through her; she wiped tears from her eyes with a small square of white cloth.
In her positions as Dean's top aid and the convention's top official, Daughtry, who is 44 years old, is leading the Democratic Party's new mission to make religious believers - particularly ardent Christian believers - view the party and its candidates as receptive to, and often impelled by, the dictates of faith. She sparked this crusade, both to transfigure the party's image as predominantly secular and to take enough votes from the Republicans to win this year's presidential election, in the aftermath of George W. Bush's 2004 defeat of John Kerry. And in her vocation as a Pentecostal pastor she stands for faith in an extreme form. There is nothing equivocal about her belief. Hers is a religion not only of divine healing but of talking in tongues.
Her father was a fiery minister in the left-wing liberation theology mode of Jeremiah Wright, but Bergner's controversy detector failed to register:
Behind her as she preached, a simple wooden cross hung on a brick wall in the vaulted and sizable sanctuary of the church, which is headed by her father, Herbert Daughtry. A prison convert who served time in his early 20s for armed robbery and passing bad checks, Herbert Daughtry - whose father founded the church and whose grandfather and great-grandfather were also ministers - became the church's pastor 50 years ago, and today Leah was delivering the sermon as part of an anniversary celebration. Below the sanctuary, in the fellowship hall, a banner for slavery reparations proclaimed, "They Owe Us." Fliers recounted Herbert Daughtry's arrest, a few weeks earlier, as he led marchers protesting the not-guilty verdict in the police killing of Sean Bell, an unarmed black man. His ministry has always combined consuming spirituality with black liberation theology - the theology Jeremiah Wright invoked this spring to defend his controversial sermons - and zealous political activism. Leah holds these forces within her.
Bergner has some interesting tidbits, like Daughtry's support for teaching creationism and support for abortion rights, leaving out her opposition to gay marriage. Would a conservative preacher be able to withstand creationism (and speaking in tongues) without raising some superior snickers from the Times?
Though she is a biblical literalist who sees no problem with teaching creation theory side by side with evolution - "For me, the Bible is history" - she, following the teaching of her father's church, is also pro-choice. "God allows us to choose in the biggest matter," she said, "whether to accept Him in our lives. How then can we take away choice on other profound issues? We don't believe the government should interfere." Hearing Alabama's covenant, she said right away that F.I.A. has not vetted everything the state parties have done with its money. Then she leaned heavily on the poles of the big tent: "The wonderful thing about the Democratic Party is that we have room for all kinds of opinions."