Democrats Chase Evangelical Votes

October 10, 2008 at 11:35 am Leave a comment

When Barack Obama proclaimed that “we worship an awesome God in the blue
states” at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he sent a tingle
through many young evangelical Democrats.

The party was set to nominate
John Kerry, considered by many evangelical activists to be religiously
tone-deaf, but these Democratic faithful were already eyeing Obama as
the un-Kerry, an unabashed believer ready to praise God in public.

Two years later, Obama further energized young Christian activists with
an electrifying speech at the Call to Renewal Conference, hosted by the
evangelical antipoverty group Sojourners. These evangelicals had trained
their sights on placing “life” issues beyond abortion on the religious
agenda–ending the war, torture, climate change and global poverty. Mara
Vanderslice, religious outreach director for the Kerry campaign who now
runs the Matthew 25 Network, a Christian political action committee that
supports Obama, said the speech marked “a turning point” for the
Democrats. No more ceding religion to the Christian right; no more
limiting the “values” issues to gay marriage and abortion.

By the time Obama accepted his party’s presidential nomination, many
more pieces of a Democratic religious revival had been put in place. The
DNC launched a Faith in Action initiative to organize faith communities
around the party’s values. It appointed Leah Daughtry, a faith-healing
Pentecostal minister, to chair the party’s 2008 convention, which for
the first time kicked off with an Interfaith Gathering and included
meetings of a newly formed Faith Caucus. The Obama campaign started a
Religious Affairs Department, began conference-call prayers and campaign
dispatches on faith and values, and launched local American Values
Forums, where campaign surrogates discussed how Obama’s faith shapes his
commitment to public service. In mid-August, Obama appeared with John
McCain at mega-pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church to answer
questions about his policies and his religious beliefs. And in late
September, Obama kicked off a Faith, Family and Values tour, through
which prominent antichoice evangelical and Catholic endorsers traveled
the country to make the case for Obama.

The Democrats, it seems, have finally gotten religion. But at what cost?

To be sure, Obama and the Democratic Party are not out to mimic the
cynical alliance between the GOP and the religious right, either in tone
or in strategy. Their outreach does not hinge on a theocratic fantasy
that would replace the Constitution with the Bible but on portraying
Obama’s progressive values on healthcare, the economy and the
environment as rooted in his strong faith. Joshua DuBois, the campaign’s
national director for religious affairs, says, “We try to strike an
appropriate balance between acknowledging religious institutions and
doing what has too often been done by others in the past: going to
churches and asking for a church directory” to cull for voters. Instead,
through the American Values Forums, the campaign, says DuBois, is
“building a network of lay people of faith who can reach out to their
communities and bring more people into the campaign.”

These outreach efforts may counter the right-wing myth that Democrats
are anti-religion, at least among progressively inclined believers, but
it’s unclear whether they will shift enough religious voters to alter
the electoral map. Indeed, most polls indicate that Obama’s God-talk has
not helped him win over a greater share of white evangelicals and white
Catholics than Kerry garnered in 2004. Fewer evangelicals are registered
Republicans than in 2004, but the movement has been to the independent
column, not to Democratic Party affiliation.

According to two seminal surveys of religion and politics–the Pew
Forum’s Religious Landscape Survey and Calvin College’s National Survey
on Religion and Public Life–roughly one-quarter of the adult white
population is evangelical. Half of them are conservative politically,
tend to be fundamentalist about their religion and are aligned with the
religious right; about a third are more moderate and independent
politically and tend to take a less literalist approach to the Bible;
and about one-fifth are progressive politically and see religion through
a more modern lens. In 2000 George W. Bush got 68 percent of the white
evangelical vote; in 2004 he got 78 percent.

Over the summer, polls showed a higher number of evangelicals were
“persuadable” this year than in 2004. But since that time, the number of
undecided evangelicals declined substantially, to 8 percent, even before
McCain tapped religious-right darling Sarah Palin as his running mate.
According to John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum, “This is
because they have been moving into the McCain column. However, many
evangelicals who say they will vote for McCain lack enthusiasm for
him–so in this sense they are still ‘persuadable.'”

The selection of Palin appears to have helped solidify this vote for
McCain, but still, even a modest conversion of the remaining persuadable
evangelicals to the Democratic column could make a crucial difference.
“Obama may not have the same opportunity to woo evangelical voters as he
did previously,” Green says. “Still, if Obama were to attract a
substantial portion of these McCain voters, it would be very positive
for his campaign.”

In several important swing states, the number of white evangelicals
matches or exceeds the proportion of evangelicals nationwide, including
Ohio (26 percent), Michigan (26 percent), Colorado (23 percent),
Virginia (31 percent), Florida (25 percent) and New Mexico (25 percent).
The evangelicals in these states tend to be less conservative than their
Bible Belt brethren, and the more moderate ones are considered to be up
for grabs. Catholics, another crucial swing group, make up about a
quarter to a third of the population in Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio.

Obama’s Faith, Family and Values tour takes aim at these battleground
states, with popular evangelical author Donald Miller, former
Congressman Tim Roemer and former Reagan official Doug Kmiec (both
antichoice Catholics) stumping under the slogan “Vote ALL Our Values.”
But even in the midst of the financial crisis, which created an opening
for religiously informed discussions about economic justice, the Faith
tour has struggled at times. A pre-launch event held by Shaun Casey,
Obama’s evangelical outreach coordinator, in the conservative stronghold
of southwest Virginia, home to the late Jerry Falwell’s Liberty
University, drew just twenty-five people.

Peeling away moderate and conservative evangelicals with a message of
public service and social justice may prove to be a challenge, even with
evangelical discontent with the GOP. But Robert Jones, author of the new
book Progressive and Religious, maintains that “the real numbers
are yet to be seen…there are still double-digit uncommitted voters.
Those folks who aren’t knee-jerk partisan voters will wait it out.”
Jones admitted that in 2006 “most of those evangelicals came home to the
Republican Party,” but he is not so sure this year. “The story will be
where the uncommitted evangelicals break…I think we will see numbers
breaking in a way that will surprise people.”

Creating such a surprise has been the goal of Jones and some of the
clients of his consulting firm, Public Religion Research, which has
worked with new organizations in Washington to promote a broader
religious agenda. One of his clients, Faith in Public Life (FPL), a
nonprofit incubated at the Center for American Progress after the 2004
election, was at the forefront of promoting a more robust discussion of
faith in this year’s presidential campaign. Throughout the season, FPL
has advanced the story line that less conservative religious voters are
not only keen on having their voices heard in the public square but also
on hearing about how presidential candidates’ values guide their policy
decisions. FPL organized the Compassion Forum at Messiah College in
April, at which Obama and Hillary Clinton were put to the test of
establishing their religious credentials, and pressed for the one at
Warren’s Saddleback Church.

Another one of Jones’s clients, the centrist think tank Third Way,
partnered with prominent evangelicals to produce an October 2007 white
paper, “Come Let Us Reason Together,” on how progressives and
evangelicals could find common ground on divisive culture-war issues
like abortion and gay rights. (Jones was a co-author.) FPL played a key
role in promoting its signers, evangelical centrists like David Gushee,
president of Evangelicals for Human Rights and professor of Christian
ethics at Mercer University; Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, who
moderated two of the four Faith Caucus panels at the DNC; and Joel
Hunter, the Florida mega-church pastor and registered Republican who
gave the benediction on the closing day of the DNC. All three have been
promoting evangelical interests in non-culture-war issues, with Gushee
focused on environmental issues and ending torture, Wallis emphasizing
fighting poverty and Hunter addressing environmental issues.

“Come Let Us Reason Together” focuses on an issue that is anathema to
the religious right, and may also spoil Democratic chances to peel off
moderate evangelicals and Catholics–abortion. The white paper stresses
the value of abortion reduction, and while no reproductive rights groups
were openly critical of it, none endorsed it. Wallis and Hunter lauded
the adoption of the abortion reduction plank in the Democratic platform,
hailing language that they said was included after religious leaders’
input. (Reproductive rights advocates also declared victory, claiming
the strongest prochoice plank in party history.) In his acceptance
speech, Obama tried to straddle the line between his prochoice base and
the religious abortion-reduction advocates: “We may not agree on
abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted
pregnancies in this country.”

Obama’s record on reproductive rights will likely drive away staunchly
conservative antichoicers, but his rhetorical shift away from
reproductive rights and toward abortion reduction was clearly aimed at
religious moderates and evangelicals. Still, some abortion-reduction
proponents were not satisfied. Steven Waldman, editor of the religion
website Beliefnet, castigated the party at a convention panel. Religious
progressives who have energized the party should also be “challenging
the party,” he tsk-tsked. “Catholics and evangelicals agree with Barack
Obama on 80 percent of issues, but the thing that’s holding them up is
they think he’s an extremist on abortion.” Although the
abortion-reduction proponents are critical of the Republicans’ hardline
antiabortion plank, they maintain that Obama has not gone far enough.
Gushee said, “I’m not convinced Obama is going to spend energy and
capital” on abortion reduction. “You don’t have credibility with
centrist evangelicals,” Gushee adds, “if you don’t spend some capital on
it. It’s really hard to explain how deep the sense of revulsion and
sorrow is in mainstream evangelical communities about abortion.”

But even if Obama’s courtship of evangelicals and Catholics succeeds in
smoothing over this sticking point, is it a wise strategy? By
emphasizing their religious credentials, Democrats are implicitly buying
into the right’s phony charge that Democrats hate religion (see Ronald
Aronson, “All Ye Unfaithful,” page 52) without necessarily shifting the
terms of what it means to be religious. The hazard of this approach was
highlighted by the question at the Saddleback forum that caused Obama
the most trouble: whether life begins at conception, a question framed
by the culture-war rhetoric Warren has claimed to eschew. After the
forum, Warren told the Wall Street Journal that there was no
philosophical or theological difference between him and James Dobson,
only a difference in tone, and he made clear in that interview, and
others, that abortion remained a deal-breaker for evangelicals
considering a vote for Obama.

Obama’s religious supporters insist that emphasizing the candidate’s
adherence to Jesus’ social justice teachings is the key to winning over
more religious voters. But economic justice is at the heart of the
progressive agenda, with or without a religious imprimatur. If social
justice, and not abortion, is indeed the primary issue for religious
voters, Obama should be able to reach them–without a gospel stamp of



Entry filed under: Christian, National. Tags: , , , .

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