Obama’s Faith Strategy
Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/11/ohio-obama.jpgSen. Barack Obama, Zanesville, Ohio (Campaign Photo)
Why was he there? That’s a question one felt watching Sen. Barack Obama yesterday afternoon in Zanesville, Ohio — a man now without a long-time church or spiritual adviser, standing outside of a Christian house of worship in the heart of the heart of the country. It seemed an improbable setting for Obama to launch what to many seems an impossible cause: to show his support for faith-based initiatives as a way of drawing evangelical Christians to his campaign. Consider that one in 10 people polled believe Obama–incorrectly–is a Muslim.
What he said was unremarkable, in many ways. Obama stressed the importance of faith-based groups in helping cure the ills of modern America, while emphasizing his support of the walls between church and state. Yet, he spoke about the need for the federal government and these groups to work in coordination. Obama described his own Christian awakening as being “both a personal commitment to Christ and a commitment to my community; that while I could sit in church and pray all I want, I wouldn’t be fulfilling God’s will unless I went out and did the Lord’s work.”
It wasn’t his most stirring speech. Yet it was the very appearance, the very words that were remarkable — because they distilled both the strategy Obama intends to use during his 50-state campaign and what has been a four-year plan by the Democratic National Committee. Indeed since the party’s bitterly narrow presidential loss in 2004, the Democrats have engaged in an overt recruitment program to attract the GOP’s flocks of evangelical Christians, whose younger generations chafe at the hard-line stance of their movement’s elders.
One could say that Obama began his personal mission to inject faith into the campaign last year in South Carolina, with a series of gospel concerts. While not in attendance, he let surrogate gospel groups do his work for him, as concert-goers jumped out of their seats and danced at the front of the stage. Obama would be mentioned in passing, but not as much as, well, you know who, while liturgical dancers flooded the stage. The inclusion of Donnie McClurkin, a Grammy-winning gospel singer who has claimed he overcame his homosexual desires through prayer, was merely a footnote to the emotion that Obama’s crusaders were able to harness.
Perhaps this outreach seems remarkable because we tend to think of the religious right as being solidly aligned with the Republican Party — as if Americans in the Great Depression turned on their radios to hear the immortal Pat Robertson give his edicts to his loyal Christian soldiers engaged in a never-ending cultural war.
But history tells a different story. It tells of evangelicals — poor, white and Southern — voting for the Democratic Party and supporting President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. It tells the story of a group who moved toward President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the GOP in a fervent mission against the godless Communists. And it shows an explosion as the movement saw the born-again Sunday School teacher Jimmy Carter fail to live up to his Christian obligations. It found a new champion in the divorced Ronald Reagan and his opposition to Roe v. Wade.
But both the evangelical movement and the Democratic Party are a long way from “Morning in America.” After Al Gore, in 2000, whose own support of faith-based programs and born-again speeches, and Sen. John Kerry, whose cred as an alter boy, couldn’t make a dent in George W. Bush’s stranglehold on the religious right, the party leadership began to act.
No less a Democratic player than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton began to tout the decrease in abortions as early as 2005. Before she became House Speaker, Rep. Nancy Pelosi convened a group that would meet monthly to discuss religious matters. Howard Dean, the DNC chair, somehow made his way onto the 700 Club, and would boast of DNC star Leah Daughtry — now chief executive officer for the 2008 Democratic National Convention — who acts as a Pentecostal minister in Washington. When Democrat Ted Strickland won the Ohio gubernatorial office in 2006, he won 51 percent of the state’s evangelical Christian vote.
“What this could be is the opening move in a long-term shift,” said Daniel Williams, author of the coming book, “Republican Faith: The Making of America’s Christian Right.” “By Obama reaching out, you could see future Democrats come in and build on that support.”
More and more, the Democrats are finding a receptive audience. As crisply chronicled by Frances Fitzgerald in the June 30 issue of The New Yorker, a new breed of evangelicals has been emerging. While elder generations were drawn to politics out of the red scare and the culture wars of the 1970s, Fitzgerald writes, younger evangelicals were coming into a world where religious diversity was the norm and the concerns were not about re-establishing some long-lost status-quo, but about performing good works in the name of god. Global warming. Poverty–both abroad and at home. Saving endangered species.
These became concerns of the young evangelicals, who took their Biblical stewardship of the world and its creatures seriously. Between 2001 to 2007, according to the Pew Research Center, there was a 15 percent drop in white evangelicals between 18-to-29 who considered themselves Republican.
Enter Obama–ever so transcendent. Despite his falling-out with both his church and his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., he has been unapologetic in evoking God and the influence Christ has had over his life.
His mission here seems clear. It’s not to win over evangelicals completely, because that’s impossible — especially as long as the Democrats stand as the guardians of a woman’s right to choose. His job is merely to start the process of building a young coalition, one that will form a new part of the Democratic Party that, over time, can grow into something that the Democrats don’t have to reach out to, but can count on, consistently, every two-to-four years.
“Rather than writing off this constituency, he’s actually beginning to explore something that might resonate,” said James Campbell, an American history professor at Brown University. “Historians should never prophesize, because when historians do, they’re often wrong. But it does seem to me that the Democrats have the chance to make inroads into that constituency that will help them in the long term.”
“We’re a long way out,” Campbell noted. “But one thing is clear: with such a partisan arrangement, you don’t have to move very many people in very many states to win or lose a presidential election.”
Of course Campbell is right. First Obama must concentrate in the short term, where he faces a divided electorate despite his signature cry that there are not blue states or red states but rather the United States of America. As such, if he could do even marginally better than the paltry returns of Gore and Kerry, Obama could strategically take the Electoral College — God willing.