THE DECLINE OF AMERICA’S RELIGIOUS RIGHT
Why Obama may be poised to lure churchgoers away from the Republicans
LUIZA CH. SAVAGE
Given that 10 per cent of Americans believe that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is a Muslim, and many more believe he followed a preacher who is radical if not unhinged, the Illinois senator seems an unlikely candidate to deliver religious voters to the Democratic ticket. “Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama,” charged Alan Keyes, Obama’s Republican challenger for his U.S. Senate seat during the campaign in 2004, noting that as a state lawmaker Obama had voted against anti-abortion legislation. Yet Obama, the formerly atheist son of a religiously skeptical mother and a Muslim-turned-atheist father, is emerging as the candidate with the greatest chance in decades to coax at least some Christian evangelicals and other churchgoing voters away from the Republican fold.
Faith plays a crucial role in American elections—and over the past 30 years it has been playing increasingly into the GOP’s hands. Ninety-two per cent of Americans say they believe in God, and 82 per cent identify as Christians. The largest single religious group is evangelical Protestants, who make up about a quarter of the American electorate. Exit polls of voters in 2004 showed that fully 78 per cent of white evangelical Protestants voted for Bush—up 10 percentage points from 2000—and they accounted for 36 per cent of all of Bush’s ballots. “Given how close the 2004 election was—he won by one per cent of the vote—this was a critical group,” says John Green, a senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. “If this election turns out to be as close, these religious groups could make a big difference.”
No one expects these voters to turn wholesale away from the Republican ticket in November—especially not toward a Democrat who supports abortion rights. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll published this month, John McCain was getting 68 per cent of the white evangelical vote, compared to Obama’s 22 per cent. But there are signs of a potentially historic shift, one based on changing demographic trends combined with Obama’s own willingness to follow Bush’s heart-onmy-sleeve professions of faith, while his Republican opponent, John McCain, seems to prefer to discuss just about anything else.
It could be the end of an era. Back in 1979, the so-called religious right became a major political force when the televangelist Jerry
Falwell launched a political advocacy group called the Moral Majority to agitate for prayer in schools and against abortion rights, pornography, homosexuality and feminism (which he once called “a Satanic attack on the home”). Energized in part by a backlash against the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that recognized a constitutional right to abortion, the Moral Majority was credited with delivering enough voters to ensure Ronald Reagan’s 10-point margin of victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980.
But Falwell died last year at the age of 73Also dead in 2007 was the mega-church, empire-building televangelist D. James Kennedy, another Moral Majority founder whose brand of Biblical literalism involved “reclaiming” the federal courts and the U.S. government for Christ. Meanwhile, Pat Robertson, a televangelist who founded the Christian
Coalition, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the U.S., as well as law schools to promote Christian approaches to the law, has been less visible now at age 78. Both Falwell and Robertson had come under fire from even Bush for describing the 9/11 terrorist attacks as divine retribution for homosexuality and secularism. Still other prominent leaders have been hit by sexual scandals.
Of the preachers who remain popular today, most are not openly partisan. Joel Osteen, the relentlessly upbeat motivational pastor who leads America’s biggest mega-ministry, limits his political message to urging people to vote. Bishop T.D. Jakes, a popular African-American televangelist who heads a Dallas megachurch, has not endorsed any candidate. Rick Warren, author of the mega-bestseller The Purpose Driven Life and perhaps one of the most influential evangelical pastors in the world, has not been openly partisan—and is among a growing number of religious leaders embracing broader social concerns than just abortion and gay marriage. “They’re saying, if it makes sense to apply Biblical values to something like abortion, then it makes sense to apply them to climate change or the lack of health care,” says Green.
UNLIKE McCAIN, OBAMA SHARES BUSH’S HEART-ON-MY-SLEEVE APPROACH TO PROFESSING FAITH
“Evangelicals are waking up to the idea that abortion is not the only moral issue. I’ve
heard a lot of evangelicals say that whether we’ve had a Bush or a Clinton in the office, we’ve had not much change on the issue of abortion, but we’ve had an immoral approach to war—and I’m ready for that to stop,” says Stephen Mansfield, a conservative evangelical writer who authored the bestselling spiritual biography of the current President, The Faith of George W. Bush. “The average evangelical does not see the Bush administration carrying out a Christian policy on the issue of torture. The idea you would torture a body made in the image of God is abhorrent.”
Prior to the rise of the religious right, of course, all of the political action was on the religious left—the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement. “The religious left never went away but it kind of atrophied,” says Green. Now there are signs of a rebirth. “There’s been a little revival since 2004,” Green notes. “The various activists who are religious and progressive decided to become more involved—largely in reaction to Bush, who pursued policies they didn’t like.” One such group is the Sojourners, a Washington-based evangelical organization devoted to issues such as fighting poverty and ending the war in Iraq.
Young evangelicals especially are finding new political causes, such as the environment, and are less tied to the Republican party than their elders. Bush’s approval rating has fallen fairly steadily among almost every segment of the American public, and a Pew analysis of surveys con-
ducted between 2001 and 2007 found that the drop in support has been particularly significant among white evangelicals ages 18 to 29, who had been among Bush’s strongest supporters in the beginning of his presidency. In 2002, for example, an overwhelming majority (87 per cent) of young evangelicals approved of Bush’s job performance. By August 2007, his approval rating among them dropped by 42 percentage points, with most of that decline coming since 2005.
It all adds up to a potentially strong threat to the Republican party. A Pew poll released this week showed that by 2007, the number of white evangelical Protestants leaning toward the Republicans was 57 per cent—down from 62 per cent in 2004. This is an opportunity for Obama—though not a slam dunk; most of the defectors now call themselves Independents. Still, “Obama has an opportunity to improve over John Kerry’s vote among evangelicals,” says Green. “He could do five to eight per cent better, meaning he could get 30 per cent of the [evangelical] vote, and that could be enough to win a close election.”
But there is also a dramatic role reversal evident in this campaign. Like George W. Bush, who won over many evangelicals by frequently talking about his Christianity, Barack Obama talks frequently about his faith, while McCain rarely does. “John McCain is of an earlier generation than Obama. He is like George H. W. Bush: he is not comfortable talking about personal matters and spirituality in public,” says Mansfield. And when McCain has attempted to reach out to religious leaders, the efforts have ended in disaster. His campaign courted the endorsements of Texas televangelist John Hagee and Rod Parsley, a mega-church leader in the swing state of Ohio. But it
turned out that Hagee has called Catholicism “the great whore,” among other things, and Parsley has called on Christians to wage “war” against the “false religion” of Islam. Confronted with such views, “McCain dumped them unceremoniously and left offence in some camps,” says Mansfield. The conflict also fed a false rumour that McCain had turned down a meeting with Billy Graham, the evangelist who advised several presidents and whom Bush credits with turning him away from alcohol and toward Jesus. “He has not started out well,” says Mansfield.
McCain’s discomfort has not gone unnoticed. Tony Perkins, head of the social activist group Family Research Council, which was active in mobilizing religious voters for Bush, has accused McCain of creating a “values void” by his near silence on core social issues, and noted that Obama had a wealth of material relating to faith on his campaign website while such topics on McCain’s site “are glaringly absent.”
Meanwhile, Obama has done more than just adopt the cadences of the black pulpit. In June, he hosted a closed-door meeting with some 30 religious leaders of various faiths and races in Chicago. The no-holdsbarred ask-me-anything encounter lasted several hours. “More often than not his answers around the table were always coming back to the same journey of faith that empowers him,” recalls Douglas Kmiec, a former assistant attorney general under the Reagan administration who crafted Reagan’s anti-abortion policies. Kmiec is a well-known pro-life conservative Roman Catholic who endorsed former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney during the Republican primary contest, but now backs Obama.
The kind of resistance Obama’s outreach faces was apparent when Kmiec was refused communion by a priest who criticized his endorsement of the pro-choice Democratic candidate. (The Catholic Church later reprimanded the priest.) But while Kmiec has also been pilloried by critics on the Web, he says he’s received a lot of support in private. “I have received a significant number of letters and emails from fellow Republicans and coreligionists that are extraordinarily positive,” says Kmiec, now a professor of constitutional law at Pepperdine University in California. “They say, ‘Thank you, we are not prepared to say it out loud, but we feel exactly the same way about getting beyond the politics of division.’ ” Kmiec says his anti-abortion views will not decide his vote. “You should not have blinders on about the rest of your obligations to your fellow neighbours: addressing the needs of health care, to provide a family wage for a working person, and it certainly requires that you pay attention to the use of warfare, and whether it has been justifiably applied in a limited circumstance.”
Obama’s outreach to the Christian vote is all the more remarkable as it unfolds among rumours, speculation and fascination with his beliefs—in particular, his links to Islam. Mansfield, the conservative Christian writer who profiled Bush, is now raising eyebrows with his latest book, due out in August, entitled The Faith of Barack Obama. Mansfield calls Obama’s early years “a religious swirl.” His mother was a religious skeptic and her parents, who helped raise him, were a non-practising Baptist and Methodist. His father, who left when Obama was two, was born in Kenya to a Muslim family, but was “thoroughly an atheist by the time his son was bom,” Mansfield told Maclean’s in an interview.
When Obama was five years old, his mother remarried and moved with him to Indonesia, where his stepfather was from. There, he attended a public school where he was registered as a Muslim and underwent some Muslim instruction, and for a time also attended a Catholic school because it was the best in the area. “Does he go to a mosque with his Indonesian stepfather and pray to Allah? Yes, he does,” says Mansfield. “But he’s not even a teenager yet when he returns home [to Hawaii], and never has any serious contact with Islam again.” Was he a Muslim because he prayed in the mosque with his father? No, says Mansfield, because according to most Islamic scholars a man must reach the age of puberty before he can make the declarations of faith that makes him a Muslim: “There is no god but God” and “Muhammad is the messenger of God.”
Obama did not return to organized religion until he was living in Chicago in his 30s and came to Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side, a black church that drew a mix of working-class and professional people to colourful sermons preaching the Gospel and an aggressive program of good works in the city. This is where he met the firebrand preacher Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who would turn him to Christianity, preside over his wedding, baptize his children, and deliver the sermon entitled “The Audacity of Hope” that Obama took as the title of his second book and the theme of his campaign. Wright would also hurt Obama’s campaign with controversial remarks about God “damning” America for its failings. After defending his now-retired preacher, whose inflammatory comments about race in America were causing a furor, Obama left the church after a (white) guest pastor mockingly accused Hillary Rodham Clinton of feeling “entitled” to the presidency because she is white.
Mansfield says his research into Trinity contradicts the stereotype portrayed in the media of a radical, racist church. Obama’s ‘church is a solid, evangelistic, social justice church,” he notes. “It was a mix of upscale and poor, it preached the Gospel, it provided him a place of community and belonging that he had [never] really known before, and affirmed him as a son of Africa, a black man. He was there for more than 20 years. It profoundly affected him.” Obama himself has said that the church gave spiritual moorings to his politics. “The black church understands in an intimate way the Biblical call to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and challenge powers and principalities,” he declared in a June 2006 speech to a religious conference in Washington that became something of a personal religious manifesto. “Kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt that I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to his will, and dedicated myself to discovering his truth.”
‘THE MORE IMPORTANT QUESTION IS NOT WHETHER OBAMA IS A MUSLIM CANDIDATE, BUT WHAT IS HIS ATTITUDE TOWARD ISLAM?’
Obama’s Christian conversion at the hand of Wright did not lead him to the kind of conservative Biblical literalism familiar to most evangelicals. “Obama approaches the Scripture in a postmodern, theologically liberal way,” says Mansfield. “He picks and chooses the Scriptures, and does not take them all literally.” For example, Obama puts less weight in Saint Paul’s instructions against homosexuality than he does on the Sermon on the Mount in which Christ instructed, among other things, “Judge not lest ye be judged,” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
This approach is not for everyone. “For a conservative evangelical, all Scriptures are of equal weight—you can’t say one is more true than another,” says Mansfield. However, it’s an approach that is gaining popularity, and Obama’s might be the right faith at the right time, given the changing face of evangelicalism. “His brand of faith is more on the rise than the Bible-thumping evangelical kind,” says Mansfield. “To understand the story of Obama’s faith is to understand what is happening religiously in this election. There has been quite a shift from five to six years ago.”
Mansfield calls the rumours that Obama is a Muslim “foolishness,” but says there are other unanswered questions. “The more important question is not whether he is a Muslim Manchurian candidate, but what is his attitude toward Islam?” he notes. “Rev. Wright was friends with Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam, travelled extensively in the Middle East, championed the
Palestinian cause, and probably sees Islam as an alternative path of God. Obama spent several decades in a church where Islam was not held up as a competing, false religion as it might have been in the church down the street. Given that our primary enemies are radical Muslims, it’s important to hear what he has to say about that,” says Mansfield, noting that many evangelicals were horrified to hear Bush speaking of the Muslim and the Christian God as one.
Obama has confessed that Alan Keyes’s assertion that Jesus Christ would not have voted for him “nagged at me” and caused him to reflect on the role faith should play in his politics. His response, in the June 2006 speech, was a message that tried to bridge the religious and secular worlds of churchgoers and non-believers. Faith should not be banished from political rhetoric, Obama said. “If we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice. Imagine Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address without reference to ‘the judgments of the Lord.’ Or King’s T Have a Dream’ speech without references to ‘all of God’s children,’ ” Obama said. Nor should faith be banished from politics itself: “Secularists are wrong when they ask believ-
ers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square... Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.” But he also spoke of the difficulty of translating the Bible into secular law. ‘Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is okay and that eating shellfish is an abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith?”
‘SECULARISTS ARE WRONG WHEN THEY ASK BELIEVERS TO LEAVE THEIR RELIGION AT THE DOOR/OBAHA SAYS
Obama’s solution was to ask the faithful to allow their faith to inspire, but not dictate, public policy. “Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason,” he said. An anti-abortion politician should be expected to “explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.”
His view does not sit well with the traditional religious right. Just this week, James Dobson, leader of the conservative group Focus on the Family, attacked Obama’s 2006
speech, which is posted on his campaign website. In a radio broadcast aired Tuesday, Dobson criticized Obama for “deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own world view, his own confused theology.” As for Obama’s statements that religious people justify their policy views in terms of universal values, Dobson charged that Obama is trying to govern by the “lowest common denominator of morality.” (But Dobson has also said he could not vote for John McCain because of his weak conservative credentials.)
Obama’s task is a tough one. While John McCain has not made social issues a major theme of his campaign, a recent California Supreme Court decision allowing same-sex marriage could give groups of the religious right an electoral rallying cry to get their voters out to the polls in November to defeat a nominee, namely Obama, who they fear would appoint liberal judges. And the bottom
line is that the abortion issue puts a ceiling on how many evangelical Christians will vote for Obama. “That is simply untenable for about 70 to 80 per cent of evangelicals,” says Mansfield. He should know—despite the 147 pages he devotes to a serious understanding of Obama the Christian, Mansfield has not been won over to Obama the candidate. “I am pro-life and a political conservative,” Mansfield told Maclean’s. “So I won’t be voting for him.” Obama clearly can’t get them all. The question is whether he can peel off enough of them to put him over the top. M