Democrats Chase Evangelical Votes

Democrats Chase Evangelical Votes

Led by Obama, Democrats are making a bid for evangelical voters. Lost cause or holy grail?


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 approval.

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