Winning Missouri worked twice for President Bush's White House ambitions. Barack Obama seems to have taken notice. For the past three months, the Democratic presidential nominee has been spending significant time in Missouri. In all but one election during the past century, Show-Me State voters have sided with the winner in presidential elections.
Just before Independence Day in Independence, Missouri, Obama delivered a speech on patriotism to counter perceptions that he is less loyal than Republican nominee John McCain, who has 17 military awards and decorations and was a Vietnam-era prisoner of war for five years.
"I will never question the patriotism of others in this campaign," said Obama, who had an Iraq war veteran introduce him. "And I will not stand idly by when I hear others question mine." Obama stressed that no party has a monopoly on devotion to the nation. "Patriotism can never be defined as loyalty to any particular leader or government or policy," he said inside the cramped gym at the Harry S. Truman Memorial Building, where four American flags served as a backdrop.
Obama's general election campaign with running mate Joe Biden, Delaware's senior senator, is built on the rhetoric of "change you can believe in," mixed with passionate words about God and country. As the junior U.S. senator from Chicago, Obama has for years been beholden to working-class voters, African Americans, feminists, gay-rights groups, and pro-choice advocates. But for the first time since Jimmy Carter ran in 1976, a presidential candidate from the Democratic Party is enthusiastically courting evangelicals and Catholics.
This effort is showing results: An August poll by the Barna Group shows McCain with greater support among self-identified evangelicals, but by only two percentage points (39 to 37 percent) over Obama. (Among Christians who meet Barna's stringent nine-point classification as evangelicals, McCain holds a commanding lead of 61 percent to 17 percent over Obama.)
To gain a clearer perspective on these developments, this summer Christianity Today conducted in-depth interviews with a broad range of evangelicals, including Ron Sider, Richard Cizik, Kirbyjon Caldwell, Jim Wallis, Tom Minnery, and Tony Campolo, to see how they assess the Obama for President campaign.
Getting Evangelicals' Attention
Rather than criticizing his Republican opponent for pandering to the Religious Right, Obama hopes to siphon off sufficient evangelical votes to put him over the top in November. It helps that he speaks the language of faith comfortably. Speaking to CT recently, Ron Sider, founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, said Obama "understands evangelicals better than any Democrat since Carter."
In June, Sider was among the 40 Christians invited to a private, off-the-record Chicago meeting hosted by Obama. Other attendees included Cizik, Franklin Graham, T. D. Jakes, Eugene Rivers, Max Lucado, and CT editor in chief David Neff. Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, says that Obama's invitation was the first time a Democratic presidential candidate had requested a meeting with an nae official in the 28 years Cizik has worked there.
He says he found Obama reflective and willing to bridge divisions. Cizik told CT, "He's willing to tackle problems that the Bush administration hasn't, like health care and climate change." The nae has been receiving weekly communication from the Obama camp, but nothing from McCain.
"The very fact that Obama is holding such meetings is positive," says John C. Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. "If the campaign doesn't make the effort, then there can be no success. But it doesn't guarantee they will get the exact results they want." Green notes that no Democrat has garnered more than one-third of the white evangelical vote since Carter. (In 2004, Bush received 78 percent of white evangelical votes.)
The Chicago meeting focused primarily on abortion and gay marriage. "You can't help but listen to the man and come away believing he's given a fair amount of thought to these issues," Cizik says. "I was both impressed by him and inclined to disagree with him."
Obama has succeeded in gaining the attention of conservative evangelicals in a way that Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Michael Dukakis, and Al Gore failed to during their respective presidential bids. He has done this in part by doing the unexpected. For instance, in July Obama proposed expanding President Bush's faith-based initiative, which many liberals opposed from the get-go over church-state separation concerns. Obama has also succeeded in winning over at least one very high profile Bush supporter: Kirbyjon Caldwell, the Houston megachurch pastor. Caldwell offered the benediction at both of George W. Bush's presidential inaugurations, and he performed the wedding ceremony of Bush's daughter Jenna in May.
Last year, the pastor of the largest United Methodist church in the nation attended an Obama fundraiser and said he was deeply impressed. As Caldwell handed him a campaign donation check, Obama told Caldwell that he remembered a speech Caldwell had given 20 years earlier at Harvard, and that he had been following the pastor's career ever since.
Another prominent African American leader, Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Washington, D.C., isn't in the Obama camp. But Jackson says McCain's relative silence on conservative social issues has motivated evangelicals to take a second look at Obama.
The short supply of evangelical enthusiasm for any single Republican candidate has also worked to Obama's advantage. "There is tremendous apathy on the Religious Right," says Jackson. "Folks are feeling betrayed and left out. That can work in Obama's favor."
Wilfredo De Jesús, 44-year-old senior pastor of New Life Covenant, an Assemblies of God church in Chicago with an attendance of 4,000, says Obama is the first Democratic candidate he has ever supported. Until now, De Jesús says, opposing abortion and homosexuality have been the paramount moral issues for him. But De Jesús says Obama's comments about the mistreatment of illegal immigrants have led him to put more emphasis on immigration in terms of advocacy and ministry.
Still, an August Gallup poll indicated that McCain would trounce Obama 53 to 37 percent among those who attend worship services weekly. "The Christian Right's core voters are still primarily concerned with abortion and gay rights," says Wheaton College associate professor Amy Black, author of Beyond Left and Right. "They will stay in the Republican Party."
"It's hard to be more pro-abortion than Hillary Clinton, but Obama seems to have done it," says David O'Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee (NRTLC). Here is a snapshot of Obama's voting record:
- He voted three times in the Illinois Legislature to stymie legislation designed to keep alive newborn survivors of abortions.
- He voted in the U.S. Senate to block a bill to require that at least one parent be notified if a minor had an abortion in another state.
- He declared his first act as president would be to sign the Freedom of Choice Act, which would again legalize "partial-birth" abortion and would use tax funds to pay for abortions.
Even so, a poll (commissioned by the NRTLC) found that only 44 percent of Americans identify Obama as pro-choice. Obama has indicated that he opposed the Born Alive Infant Protection Act because it could have been used as a means to overturn Roe v. Wade by extending the status of personhood to a human fetus (though in committee he voted against an amendment that would have clarified this and would not have undermined Roe). He also has said that he would not be against banning third-trimester abortions if a bill provides a mother's health exemption.
To reach out to evangelicals, Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean appointed Tony Campolo as a member of the party's platform committee. In August, the platform committee reaffirmed its abortion plank but dropped the "safe, legal, and rare" language. New language says: "The Democratic Party also strongly supports a woman's decision to have a child by ensuring access to and availability of programs for pre- and post-natal health care, parenting skills, income support, and caring adoption programs."
Campolo told CT that pro-lifers are "pleased that some language has been put in that we support. It's less than we want, but it's a great deal more than [what] many people expected." There is no "conscience clause" addressing health workers' right to abstain from providing services they believe unconscionable, or a clear call for abortion reduction—just a reduction in the "need for abortion."
Concerned Women for America president Wendy Wright says she has encountered many pro-lifers who naïvely assume they can win the candidate over to their viewpoint. "He listens to people, but what does he do with the information?" Wright asks. "He doesn't change his mind. Evangelicals need to look beyond his appealing persona. When a politician speaks against the Born Alive Infant Protection Act, there seems to be a disconnect between his rhetoric and his record."
Along with the abortion issue, Obama has drawn ire from evangelicals for opposing the November ballot referendum to ban gay marriage in California. Obama believes such referendums to amend federal and state constitutions could be used in the future to undermine other legal protections. Although Obama believes marriage should be reserved for one man and one woman, he favors civil unions for gays. And, in a June letter to San Francisco's Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club, Obama wrote, "I want to congratulate all of you who have shown your love for each other by getting married these last few weeks."
"He gives lip service to the institution of marriage," says Tom Minnery, Focus on the Family senior vice president for government and public policy, "but he will not do a single thing to ensure that traditional marriage survives."
In August, the Obama campaign launched an outreach designed to harness the energy of supportive evangelicals via low-profile house meetings and community-service projects. Among the political action committees stoking young pro-Obama advocates is the Matthew 25 Network, founded by 33-year-old Mara Vanderslice. The organization debuted on the Web in July, calling voters to back Obama because he, like Jesus, "cares for the least of these."
Vanderslice says she is elated with Obama because he cares about the environment, wants to bring troops home from Iraq, and will bring tax relief for average Americans. The Matthew 25 Network is running $500,000 worth of commercials on Christian radio stations in battleground states. "A president can have such an impact on lives, not only here but [also] around the world," Vanderslice says.
The man behind the push to reach out to evangelicals is Joshua DuBois. The 26-year-old black Pentecostal associate pastor from Boston is Obama's point person for faith policy. DuBois has organized 200 American Values Forums—town hall meetings where evangelicals, Catholics, mainline Protestants, and Jews sit down and try to see each other's political viewpoints.
In addition, DuBois has been busy coordinating house parties where Obama supporters invite neighbors, friends, coworkers, and relatives to discuss faith and politics. The goal is to find common ground on tough issues like abortion.
Cizik, Campolo, and Sider favor extending Bush's faith-based initiative, but they are disappointed that Obama's proposal to do so would sacrifice the right of faith groups to hire employees who share the same faith. "The Bush guarantees on hiring are important," Cizik says. "A good number of evangelicals who would join the program won't. I'm not sure Obama understands how seriously we view the protection of the integrity of our institutions."
And more questions are cropping up about Obama's basic religious convictions. "There's no question Obama is a Christian, but he is definitely of a postmodern, liberal, and, to some small extent, black liberation theology perspective," says Stephen Mansfield, author of The Faith of Barack Obama.
"One can imagine, in an Obama presidency," writes Mansfield, "White House conferences on 'Faith and Poverty' or 'Religion's Responses to Racism' that are more than theater, more than time-wasting mockeries of national ills."
Obama, Dobson, and Warren
No single evangelical leader has been more negative about Obama's candidacy than Focus on the Family's James Dobson. This summer, Dobson—who earlier declared that he couldn't vote for McCain—took to the airwaves to denounce Obama, based on his keynote address at a Call to Renewal conference two years earlier.
In that speech, Obama noted the pluralistic reality of society. "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 said. "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?"
Being mentioned in the same breath as Sharpton offended Dobson. Dobson also declared on the air that Obama "is deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own worldview, his own confused theology." He labeled Obama's abortion stance "a fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution." Yet much of Obama's Call to Renewal address took Democrats to task for failing to address political issues in moral terms.
Dobson's protest spurred Houston's Caldwell to start a website, JamesDobsonDoesntSpeakforMe.com. Some 12,000 have signed the site's online statement critical of Dobson's views on Obama. Caldwell told CT, "Someone needs to address the comments he made. I want Americans to know the truth and vote accordingly."
Others have criticized Rick Warren's association with Obama. In 2006 Obama spoke at a global AIDS summit at Saddleback Church and was tested for HIV. Afterwards, 18 ministry leaders published an open letter of "indignation and opposition." (Obama's second visit to Saddleback was for the civil forum alongside McCain.)
In July, with Obama on tour in Afghanistan and Iraq, Dobson went back on air to further castigate the Democrat. He revealed that he stayed awake at nights fretting over the prospect of an Obama presidency. Dobson warned listeners, "He is so extreme that he does threaten traditional family, life, and pro-moral values."
But after securing enough delegates to ensure the Democratic nomination, Obama moved toward the political center. This has exposed him to charges of pandering to conservatives. "A good candidate listens to arguments pro and con and sometimes changes his mind," Campolo argues. Lately Obama has sounded a lot more like Ronald Reagan than Bill Clinton. The senator criticized the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that child rapists couldn't be executed, and he backed the justices' affirmation of the Second Amendment rights of gun owners.
Spreading Deception, Racism
Just as Obama's tech-savvy supporters are finding a voice on the Internet, his foes—including many Christians—are using the Internet to spread new deceptions. The facts are that Obama had an agnostic mother and a nominally Muslim father, and that as a child Obama had two hours of weekly Islamic instruction for the two years he attended school in Indonesia.
But widely distributed rumors contend that Obama
- doesn't put his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance;
- took the oath of office with his hand on a Qur'an;
- is a Muslim, not a Christian.
Obama supporters launched FighttheSmears.com to set the record straight about his religion and patriotism. Yet polls show that more than one in 10 Americans still believe these falsehoods. Campolo says, "I have heard repeatedly on Christian radio that Obama is a Muslim." LivePrayer.com founder Bill Keller declared, "Pastors and churches who support Barack Hussein Obama are a stench in the nostrils of God!"
Another factor in play is that Obama is the first major-party African American nominee in history. Obama's supposed support of black liberation theology has been a concern because of his 20-year membership in Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ pastored by the now-retired Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. In May, Obama withdrew membership from the church and decried Wright for "giving comfort to those who prey on hate."
"A lot of people—both blacks and whites—will vote based on race," Bishop Jackson says. "Jeremiah Wright gives an excuse to not vote for Obama. Claims that [Wright] is a closet racist or Marxist will haunt Obama."
"Evangelicals, if they are not careful, may be pulled into a race-baiting strategy that will reflect extremely poorly on us," Cizik warns. "It would be wrong to pull the party lever without serious reflection."
"There is no doubt that if Obama is elected the first African American president, it will be a huge step toward racial reconciliation in this country," Sider says. "It will show that the majority of white people have moved beyond racism." It would also provide Obama a platform for addressing issues that no white politician dares touch, such as black absentee fatherhood.
In Saint Louis during a July address to the African Methodist Episcopal convention, Obama exhorted parents to teach their sons "to treat women with respect, and to realize that responsibility does not end at conception, that what makes them men is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise one." The AME is the oldest predominantly black denomination in the nation.
Obama repeatedly mentioned his faith during the talk, which at times resembled a revival meeting more than a political speech. "Our faith cannot be an idle faith," Obama declared. "It requires more of us than Sundays at church. It must be an active faith, rooted in that most fundamental of all truths: that I am my brother's keeper, that I am my sister's keeper.
"The challenges we face today—war and poverty, joblessness and homelessness, violent streets and crumbling schools—are not simply technical problems in search of a 10-point plan," Obama said. "They are moral problems, rooted in both society indifference and individual callousness, in the imperfections of man." Obama reiterated the need for government to partner with faith-based initiatives to feed the hungry, reform the prisoner, rehabilitate the drug addict, and keep the veteran employed.
For those who had doubts, Obama recited his salvation testimony from his days as a community organizer in Chicago in the 1980s. "I let Jesus Christ into my life," Obama declared. "I learned that my sins could be redeemed and if I placed my trust in Jesus, that he could set me on a path to eternal life."
Such a personally fervent witness may cause many moderate evangelicals to vote for a Democrat for president for the first time in their lives. Bishop Jackson observes, "A lot of people don't like either candidate. That works in Obama's favor. Many may give Obama a try. At least he's talking about faith." Whether evangelical voters can reconcile Obama's talk with his walk remains an open question.
John W. Kennedy is a CT contributing editor and news editor of Today's Pentecostal Evangel in Springfield, Missouri.
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Christianity Today also wrote a profile of John McCain.
Christianity Today interviewed Barack Obama in January.
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