On June 10, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama convened a meeting in a law office in downtown Chicago with a wide array of about thirty evangelical leaders, in an unprecedented effort to win their support. Obama insisted that the meeting remain entirely off the record, forbidding participants from disclosing his statements to the press. His campaign has kept the names of attendees a closely guarded secret. But through interviews with participants and overlooked statements in obscure publications of the Christian press, a first-hand picture of the meeting emerges, starkly at odds with the news reports that accepted the formal version at face value.
News accounts about the meeting stated that Obama impressed his audience with his sincerity, depth of theological knowledge and communication skills. But according to those present, he did little to assuage the hostility that many of the assembled–particularly the conservative white evangelicals–harbor toward him and his liberal positions on social issues. Those differences reached a crescendo when the Rev. Franklin Graham directly confronted Obama about his supposedly Muslim background and Christian authenticity.
Franklin Graham, son of the evangelical icon Billy Graham and head of the international Christian aid organization Samaritan’s Purse, was seated next to Obama at the meeting. He peppered Obama with pointed questions, repeatedly demanding to know if the senator believed that “Jesus was the way to God or merely a way.” Graham, who once incited an international controversy by calling Islam a “very evil and wicked religion,” proceeded to inquire about the Muslim faith of Obama’s father, suggesting that Obama himself may be a Muslim.
“They focused on abortion, gay marriage, and then Franklin Graham tried to get Senator Obama saved,” said Rev. Eugene Rivers, an African-American pastor from Boston who attended the meeting. Rivers told the Religion News Service that Graham pointedly questioned Obama’s “father’s connections to Islam.” Obama reportedly said of his father, “The least of things he was was Islamic.”
Graham’s spokesman, Mark DeMoss, denies that Graham asked Obama about his father’s Muslim faith. DeMoss did, however, confirm that Graham questioned whether the candidate believed Jesus was the only way to Heaven. “Jesus is the only way for me. I’m not in a position to judge other people,” Obama responded, according to Rivers.
Stephen Strang, a right-wing Pentecostal, was among those invited to Obama’s meeting. He is the multimillionaire publisher of Charisma, an evangelical magazine, and a signatory of the World Evangelical Alliance statement urging evangelization of Jews. In naming him one of the twenty-five “most influential evangelicals in America,” Time called Strang “a Bush favorite ever since his homegrown Christian publishing house, Strang Communications, released The Faith of George W. Bush, the first spiritual biography of the President, in 2003.” “We didn’t write it to help Bush, but it no doubt helped elect him,” declares Strang. He is also a close associate of controversial End Times theology proponent Pastor John Hagee, whose endorsement presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain recently rejected after a firestorm of criticism. Strang is a member of the board of Hagee’s organization, Christians United For Israel, and a publisher of Hagee’s book on Israel. Strang told me that several participants, not just Graham, expressed concern about the Muslim background of certain Obama family members. Obama replied that he had hardly known his father, who left his family when Obama was 2, and he sought to downplay the notion that his stepfather, an Indonesian Muslim, was active in his faith. “I remember [Obama] saying, ‘We never went to the mosque when we lived in Indonesia,’ ” Strang said.
Strang told me that as the meeting drew to a close, one evangelical leader who supported Obama (“a friend” Strang refused to name) stood and “lectured” the other attendees about the faith of Obama’s opponent, Republican Senator John McCain. The pro-Obama preacher railed about McCain’s divorce as evidence of his lack of religious commitment, and added that McCain has demonstrated discomfort with public expressions of faith. “He also said that McCain swore on the Senate floor,” Strang recounted. “He seemed to be saying that if Christians can support a flawed candidate like McCain, the implication was, why couldn’t they support a candidate with flawed policies like Obama?”
Strang recalled that Obama did not rebuke the minister for his personal and pointed remarks about McCain. Instead, according to Strang, Obama simply smiled and said he would not make any attempt to undermine his opponent’s faith.
Strang said he found Obama’s outreach to evangelicals refreshing. “Obama was very clear that he wanted to involve people of faith in the process and he seemed to say that he would be inviting people like this to the White House,” said Strang, who was invited twice to the White House by George W. Bush and once by his father. “He was very sincere and I think he scored some points.” But Strang was not persuaded. He is a strong supporter of McCain. “I support him 99 percent. How I vote is based on whether the candidate is for or against life, period,” Strang said.
Besides Strang, Graham and Rivers, attendees at the meeting included conservative Christianity Today editor David Neff, Evangelical Lutheran Church President Mark Hanson, conservative legal scholar and Reagan Justice Department official Doug Kmiec–who has been denied communion for his support for Obama–and T.D. Jakes, the Dallas-based African-American Pentecostal mega-church pastor who has supplanted the black church’s traditional social justice teachings with “prosperity gospel” theology, preaching faith as the way to the promised land of wealth and status.
“I’m not against marching,” Jakes told PBS in 2007. “But in the ’60s, the challenge of the black church was to march. And there are times now perhaps that we may need to march. But there’s more facing us than social justice. There’s personal responsibility, motivating and equipping people to live the best lives that they can.”
“Obama is said to consult Jakes on a weekly basis and called him a ‘role model’ of a Christian who puts his faith into social action,” Sarah Posner reported in her book, God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters.
Another influential African-American prosperity gospel pastor, Kirbyjon Caldwell, attended the June 10 meeting with Obama. “It is unscriptural not to own land,” the preacher has declared. Caldwell, a former bond dealer who founded the country’s largest Methodist congregation, the Houston-based Windsor Village, has been among George W. Bush’s most vocal and visible black backers. He introduced Bush at the 2000 Republican National Convention, delivered the benedictions at his 2001 and 2005 inaugural ceremonies and presided over the wedding ceremony of Jenna Bush. Bush has rewarded Caldwell’s good works by lavishing his missions with federal faith-based grants.
But almost as soon as Obama declared his campaign for the presidency, Caldwell broke from the GOP, delivering a roaring endorsement for the Democrat from Illinois, hailing him for his “character, confidence and courage.” “For the last twelve months, I’ve been talking to people who are part of the [Obama] campaign very, very regularly,” Caldwell said recently.
Caldwell’s endorsement did not come without controversy. Just days after Obama delivered a speech criticizing homophobia in the black church, some gay bloggers revealed that Caldwell’s own Windsor Village church hosted a ministry that, according to its website, was “created to provide Christ centered instruction for those seeking freedom from homosexuality.” Caldwell denied any knowledge of the ministry, though he refused to condemn it. Yet when the revelation spread from the blogosphere to the mainstream media, and proof surfaced that the ministry was an integral component of Windsor Village, Caldwell’s congregation scrubbed all mention of it from its website.
Behind Obama’s religious outreach effort is a group of avowedly Christian political consultants who insist that white evangelicals can be persuaded to vote Democratic if candidates overtly display their religiosity. Among these consultants is Obama campaign aide Joshua DuBois, an African-American lay minister who organized his candidate’s recent meeting with evangelical leaders. DuBois himself has sidestepped questions about Obama’s pro-choice politics and support for same-sex civil unions. As a paid member of the candidate’s staff, DuBois has refused to state his own position on abortion. Instead, he emphasizes the appeal of the senator’s social gospel message.
“There are folks who are concerned about abortion, they’re concerned about gay marriage,” DuBois told David Brody, a reporter for Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, “but at the same time, they’re concerned about health care, they’re concerned about poverty, they’re concerned about the war in Iraq. So I wouldn’t necessarily put [Christian voters] into the two camps like that.”
Mara Vanderslice has been called the “faith guru” by The Hill in Washington, DC. Her consulting firm, Common Good Strategies, recently formed a political action committee, the Matthew 25 Network, to advocate on Obama’s behalf. In the past, Vanderslice has advised her clients not only to downplay their support for abortion rights and gay rights but also never to use the phrase “separation of church and state.” Hired by Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004, she ultimately found herself sidelined. “She was a little bit overzealous,” the late Father Robert Drinan, a liberal Catholic legend and Kerry adviser, told the New York Times. Vanderslice claimed results two years later in the Congressional midterms. Her clients, she said, citing exit polling, garnered 10 percent more of the evangelical vote than two years before. Whether Democratic gains among so-called “values voters” were a result of Vanderslice’s inspired appeals, or simply a reflection of the nationwide backlash against the Republican Congress and Bush’s policies, does not deter her from taking credit.
As Obama has emerged, he has embraced Vanderslice’s tactics. In 2006, during a speech before the Call to Renewal conference, a gathering of moderate evangelicals convened by Rev. Jim Wallis, Obama sought to break with Democratic orthodoxy by attacking unnamed “secularists.” “But what I am suggesting is this–secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square,” Obama declared. “Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”
Obama tries to present himself as a breed apart from other Democrats, like Kerry–a liberal Catholic who was uncomfortable trumpeting his religion like an evangelical. He hopes his sermonizing before audiences such as Call To Renewal will provide reasons for the Christian right to abandon its hostility to the Democrats and rally to him.
The Backlash Builds
In mid-June, Obama’s aide Joshua DuBois called Tom Minnery, vice president of public policy for the Christian-right mega-ministry Focus on the Family, to request a meeting at Focus headquarters in Colorado Springs. Minnery is the top political adviser to James Dobson, founder and CEO of Focus on the Family, far and away the most influential leader of the Christian right. DuBois’s request for a meeting with Dobson was apparently not freelancing but approved by the highest level of the Obama campaign and encouraged by his new religious consultants.
There are few less conciliatory and more divisive figures in American political life than James Dobson. He has vowed never to vote for a politician who does not oppose all forms of abortion, and has attacked conservative Republican lawmakers for making even the slightest compromises on social issues. Through his daily radio broadcast–the third most popular program in the United States–Dobson has likened stem cell research to Nazi experiments, equated the Supreme Court with the Ku Klux Klan and warned that gay marriage will lead to “marriage between daddies and little girls…. between a man and his donkey.” Dobson has never exhibited any sign that he would moderate his draconian stands or partisan attacks.
DuBois’s entreaty to Dobson was surprising in light of Obama’s harsh criticism of the Focus leader. In his 2006 Call to Renewal speech, Obama compared Dobson to the Rev. Al Sharpton, another polarizing figure whom Dobson has publicly attacked. “Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation and a nation of nonbelievers,” Obama proclaimed. “And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson’s, or Al Sharpton’s?”
That statement provided the basis for a red-faced radio tirade by Dobson on June 24–only days after Minnery fielded DuBois’s meeting request. With Minnery seated at his side during his broadcast, Dobson lashed out at Obama, questioning the sincerity of his Christian convictions and accusing him of offering a “fruitcake interpretation” of the Constitution. “I think [Obama’s] deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own worldview, his own confused theology,” Dobson fumed. “He is dragging biblical understanding through the gutter.”
The same day, in Tupelo, Mississippi, the far-right Rev. Don Wildmon echoed his ally Dobson’s attacks. From the studios of the American Family Association’s radio outlet, Wildmon homed in on Obama’s declaration that America is “no longer just a Christian nation.” “Go back to Rodney King–can’t we all get along?” Wildmon drawled sarcastically, referring to the black man whose beating by Los Angeles cops provoked citywide riots in 1992. “This is where [Obama’s] coming from.”
That afternoon, another close Dobson ally, Gary Bauer, an evangelical presidential candidate for the Republican nomination in 2000, fired off an e-mail promoting Dobson’s broadcast. “Anyone who takes his or her faith seriously should be deeply concerned about the possible election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States,” Bauer wrote. “Obama is…the most proabortion candidate for president the Democrats have ever nominated.”
Since McCain distanced himself from right-wing pastors John Hagee and Rod Parsley, Bauer has emerged as McCain’s most influential Christian- right backer. Dobson, for his part, remains suspicious of the insufficiently antigay Arizona senator, who has criticized the religious right in the past. Bauer’s now daily e-mail blasts invariably contain appeals on McCain’s behalf. In his attack on Obama, Bauer declared, “There is only one candidate who can prevent [Obama] from becoming president. That candidate is John McCain, who yesterday at California State University at Fresno once again attacked Barack Obama’s proabortion extremism.”
The timing of the Christian right’s wave of attacks on Obama suggests movement-wide coordination. Dobson, Wildmon and Bauer are leading members of the Arlington Group, a weekly conference that brings together most of the major Christian-right outfits to devise political strategy. Their barrage against Obama was only an opening volley. As their campaign intensifies, the Arlington Group is likely to tighten its coordination, targeting the movement’s message on Obama’s character.
The Obama campaign’s effort to neutralize Dobson has swiftly turned into open warfare. Within hours of Dobson’s broadcast, a website appeared called “James Dobson Doesn’t Speak For Me,” featuring point-by-point refutations of his denunciation. Originally registered by Alyssa Martin, an Obama campaign intern working directly under DuBois, the registration was quietly transfered to Caldwell, the erstwhile Bush supporter now identified on the site as the de facto leaderof a “coalition of pastors” supporting Obama. Meanwhile, Vanderslice has begun raising money to buy ads in Colorado Springs (the home of Focus on the Family) highlighting Dobson’s record of extreme statements.
While Obama is working to cut into the GOP’s evangelical base, McCain is quietly touring the country, meeting with Christian leaders. On June 27, McCain met with Dobson’s point man in Ohio, Phil Burress. “We realized that he’s with us on the majority of the issues we care about,” Burress said afterward. Three days later, McCain was off to the mountaintop retreat of the Graham family, where he met with both Franklin and Billy. If a Washington Post/ABC News poll taken in June is any indication, McCain has cause for confidence; he trounced Obama among white evangelical voters by a margin of 68 to 22 percent. But there remains a question of turnout for McCain .
“McCain won’t have any trouble convincing evangelicals he’s on their side,” Warren Smith, the editor of Evangelical Press News Service, says. “The only reason they’re holding back their support is to see how much they can get out of him.”
For the Obama campaign, there may be little to lose by plumping for conservative Christian votes. As Smith remarked to me, “If Obama can’t make any inroads with these [evangelical] folks, at least he can say he tried, which allows him to at least create the illusion of new politics. If he can do some good with them, well, great.”
With little to lose and everything to gain, Obama has lifted high the cross. But are there invisible strings attached? In victory, his newfound God squad may also want to see how much faith-based benefit they might get out of him. Already, Obama has pledged to reauthorize Bush’s faith-based initiative through his new Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. “It will be a critical part of my Administration,” he has vowed. But Obama should know by now that pastors can have their own agendas, too.