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.