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Evangelical Vote Enters the Race

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/palin1.jpgGov. Sarah Palin (R-Alaska) (Zuma Press)

WASILLA, Alaska – Pastor Larry Kroon of the Wasilla Bible Church, where Gov. Sarah Palin attends services, calls on his congregation to make up their own minds about politics.

“I’m not the one you look to for policy—foreign, domestic or local,” Kroon said Sunday morning to a sea of 500 attendees. “I’m not the one you look to for analysis.”

Instead, Kroon challenges church members to hold him to task on his core religious mission, to help them discover the “wonder, glory and mystery of Jesus.” Though Kroon has said he does not push an ideological perspective, when the church faithful study the Bible, they tend to see the world through a conservative lens.

Palin has also been a member of the Assembly of God Church, where she gave a talk in June to high-school students urging them to pray that an Alaska gas pipeline and the war in Iraq fulfill “God’s will.”

In tapping Palin, who is ardently pro-life, Sen. John McCain’s Republican presidential campaign is hoping to galvanize the evangelical base of the party. Since Palin joined the ticket, all indications show that the Alaska maverick has lit a fire under the sleeping giant of the GOP Christian conservative base that had so far shown lackluster support for McCain. Evangelicals, who have often been overlooked in this campaign cycle, are suddenly becoming a critical demographic — thanks to Palin.

Bridging the “enthusiasm divide,” Palin has not entirely spelled doom for Sen. Barack Obama, who has some religious support of his own among progressive evangelicals.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/religion.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

But the Palin pick did boost McCain’s efforts to court the religious right, regarded as among his biggest weaknesses. Back in 2006, McCain was accused of flip-flopping in supporting the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, having previously called him an “agent of intolerance.”

In contrast, conservative religious powerbrokers, like James Dobson, who had expressed scepticism about McCain, quickly took to Palin, a lifelong pro-lifer and card-carrying member of the National Rifle Assn. In the 24 hours hours after McCain announced his selection, his campaign raked in a record $7 million in Internet donations.

“She’s a devastatingly good choice,” said Jacques Berlinerblau, the author of “Thumpin’ It: The Use and Abuse of the Bible in Today’s Presidential Politics” and director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. “From a religious perspective, Biden gave [Obama] nothing.”

Berlinerblau, who has not endorsed a presidential candidate, pointed out that the evangelical voting bloc does more for McCain than just energize voters in an abstract sense. These active churchgoers have a framework in place to bring out the vote, particularly in large churches. Churches like Palin’s, which enjoy non-profit tax status, are not allowed to endorse candidates, though pastors can freely discuss hot-topics like abortion.

“Infrastructure is almost synonymous with ‘church,’” Berlinerblau said. “Everybody knows what’s going on, [the pastor] just has to roll out the issues and everybody knows what he’s talking about.”

Though Berlinerblau predicts a backlash against such use of religious institutions in future elections, the pulpit could end up being a powerful political tool in 2008.

Obama does have an advantage against such mobilizing, compared to Democratic contenders of the past. The Illinois senator carries extra religious clout. During the Democratic and Republican primary seasons, a Time magazine poll found that among likely voters, 24 percent considered Obama “a person of strong religious faith” out of a list of prominent politicians, while about 15 percent of respondents said the same about McCain.

At the time of the poll, in May 2007, Time magazine pointed to a history of black Democratic politicians being associated with mobilizing their communities through Christian churches. Obama was perceived in this same context.

Considering that Sen. John Kerry appealed to the progressive wing of evangelicals and managed to siphon off about 20 to 22 percent of the evangelical vote in 2004, some experts say Obama has a good shot of holding some ground with the voting bloc.

Martin E. Marty, a prominent religion and culture scholar, said it’s important to remember that evangelicals are not a homogenous group.

“In the last eight years – the Bush years – there has been a great growth in the internal diversity of the group called evangelicals,” Marty said. “I don’t think many of them would depart from the criticism of abortion, but I don’t think they all give it the same priority.”

Marty noted that many evangelicals ascribe to a the social justice ethic outlined by Cardinal Joseph Berardin in 1983, the “consistent ethic of life” or seamless web. This philosophy opposes abortion but also euthanasia, war and the death penalty.

Factoring in these progressive evangelicals, Berlinerblau estimates Obama could be carrying as much as 24 to 25 percent of the voting bloc.

Now in a neck-and-neck race with McCain, Obama needs to hold onto them, particularly in swing states like Ohio.

“If Kerry had won 6 percent more evangelicals in Ohio [in 2004],” Berlinerblau said he calculated in researching his book, “he would have won the election.”

Midwestern evangelicals are perhaps a better target for the Obama campaign than elsewhere in the country, like the Deep South. Marty pointed out that in places like the upper-Midwest, residents are exposed to more of a mix of religious viewpoints that tend to foster less extreme views, making them more likely to support a more liberal candidate.

Just weeks ago, Obama’s Midwestern strategy was aimed largely at another voting bloc — independents. This group was expected to define the 2008 election, particularly with a maverick match-up between Obama and McCain. But. McCain’s choice of Palin has so shaken up the scene that evangelicals may once again emerge as the deciding vote.

In 2004, many observers had expected a less-energized evangelical vote. President George W. Bush, however, won more than 10 percent more of the evangelical vote in 2004 than he did in 2000, according the non-partisan Pew Research Center.

The question now is how much of the vote Obama will siphon off from McCain. It’s difficult to know exactly how the internal divisions of evangelicals break.

At services on Sunday, Kroon noted the difficulty of trying to understand who someone is — whether its Jesus or your hometown mayor.

“Look at us struggle,” Kroon said.

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