Strange Bedfellows: Obama and Evangelicals

Obama exploits distrust of McCain, actively courts young evangelical voters.


June 12, 2008— -- From the Catholic cathedrals of Boston to the AME storefront churches of Chicago to the Southern Baptist megachurches of Memphis, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., is actively courting Christian voters, many of them the children of evangelical Protestants who have voted Republican for decades and were instrumental in putting George W. Bush in the White House.

Borrowing the language and techniques of the Christian right, capitalizing on the animus many evangelicals have for Republican nominee Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and speaking openly about his own faith, Obama hopes to pick up young progressive evangelicals whose political concerns extend beyond the hot-button issues of abortion and gay marriage.

Obama has met with religious leaders and encouraged lay members of the "faith community" to gather to discuss eradicating poverty, ending the war in Iraq, curbing global warming and reducing the number of abortions -- all political and moral issues that both socially liberal and progressively religious Americans can agree on.

Tuesday Obama met with "prominent evangelicals and other faith leaders" in a closed door meeting in Chicago, according to a statement released by the campaign. The meeting came just one day after his campaign announced plans for a program aimed at wooing young Christian voters.

Also on Tuesday, the new political action committee called the Matthew 25 Network, which is dedicated to getting Christians to vote for Obama but is not affiliated with the campaign, held its first fundraiser in Washington, D.C.

As a pro-choice candidate who supports same-sex unions, "it is nearly impossible for Obama to win over pro-life and pro-traditional-marriage conservative evangelicals," said David Brody, senior national correspondent for the Christian Broadcast Network.

"For really conservative evangelicals abortion and [gay] marriage are deal breakers. But younger and moderate evangelicals are willing to listen to Obama on broadening the discussion to issues they care about, like poverty, climate change and ending the war in Iraq," said Brody, who broke the story about the Joshua Generation Project, the campaign's initiative to go after college-age Christians.

"The Obama camp has done a lot of religious outreach for over a year, which alone gives him a leg up over McCain. They're trying to reach out to this 'Joshua generation,' because they're talking about many of the same issues," Brody said.

The Joshua Generation Project is a reference to the biblical prophet who led the Hebrews from the wilderness to Israel after the death of Moses.

Though the project is a new initiative, the campaign says Obama has long made a point of bringing people of faith into his fold.

"The campaign's primary outreach to the faith community has been through 'American values forums,' town hall meetings of different religious groups to discuss many of the issues facing the country," said an Obama campaign official not authorized to speak to the press.

The official said the campaign had distributed "a curriculum and DVDs" and has encouraged religious voters to meet together at home for a "conversation about faith and values."

Though the language and techniques sound straight out of the Christian right handbook, the official insisted that because Obama's heart was in a different place so too was the campaign's methodology.

"We are explicitly doing this much different from the conservatives. There is a broad range of values we're addressing: health care, international aid and development, the war in Iraq. This is truly progressive. We're leading with a desire to uphold the separation of church and state, and we're mindful of the theoretical and very real IRS guidelines about what religious leaders can and cannot do," he said.

He said Obama's imperative to court religious voters began before anyone anticipated he and John McCain would be their parties' presumptive nominees, and that McCain's poor standing in the evangelical community had nothing to do with it.

Courting Christians is nothing new to Obama. In the 1980s as a community organizer in Chicago, Obama found local churches essential to propagating his education and housing programs. It was also in those churches, he says, that he found Jesus Christ.

"There are a tremendous number of evangelicals, and also Catholics. They make up a significant voting block. When Obama becomes president he will be president of all Americans. So it is important to open dialogues and build bridges now," the campaign official said.

Obama is concentrating on young voters rather than older conservative voters who are unlikely to elect a pro-choice candidate.

"Evangelicals are very Republican," said John C. Green, a senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "He faces not just the partisan hurdles of being pro-choice and in favor of gay marriage, but he also has to contend with the controversy over the Rev. Wright and his comments about religious people being bitter and clinging to religion."

According to the most recent ABC News poll, evangelical white Protestants favored McCain over Obama by 66 to 26 percent. (White Catholics, who are swing voters, divided about evenly, 45 to 47. Nonreligious voters split 32 to 62 percent.)

Obama's support from evangelicals is fairly similar to the 21 percent Sen. John Kerry, D- Mass., wrested from President Bush, a favorite son of the evangelical movement.

"Obama could never appeal to the majority of white evangelicals. The question is: Can he make more of a dent than Kerry? Can he do better than that 22 percent?" asked Green.

Obama's plan to go after young evangelicals mirrors his own faith, but exploits a growing divide in the evangelical community, said Tony Campolo, a progressive pastor and professor who advises the Democratic National Convention on matters of faith.

Campolo preaches what he calls "radical" or "red letter" Christianity, highlighting the calls for social action in Christ's words -- feed the hungry, house the homeless, clothe the naked.

Obama's evangelical supporters, like Obama himself, view Christianity in a similar light, interpreting the Bible literally but concentrating on its message of social justice. Older voters, he said, will never stop thinking about abortion and gay marriage as key issues, but young people might.

"There is a broadening of the agenda among younger evangelicals. Young people are tired of the homosexual issue. They have class and sit in the commons of their colleges and have open discussions with gay people. They know the things they hear on conservative radio about gays aren't true," he said.

Younger evangelicals are also increasingly convinced that helping people out of poverty is a way toward reducing the number of abortions. Obama, like his former contender Sen. Hillary Clinton, D- N.Y., has pushed an agenda to reduce the number of abortions by lifting women out of poverty, Campolo said.

In an unscientific online poll conducted early in the primaries by Relevant Magazine, a publication aimed at college-aged Christians, 28.7 percent of respondents to the question "Who would Jesus vote for?" picked Obama, 4 percent more than preacher and former Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, and nearly five times as many votes than John McCain received.

Many young evangelicals are drawn to Obama because he is willing to discuss openly his own faith, something McCain rarely does.

"There has been a great deal of criticism for Obama's former pastor Jeremiah Wright. But there is no talk of McCain's pastor, because he doesn't have one. He simply is not a religious person in the way many evangelicals want their president to be. McCain represents a good secular person. They regard him highly, but they don't see him as a person of faith," he said.

Obama's campaign is leading the initiative, but a number of community-based and college-based groups have worked to raise grass-roots support.

The recently created Matthew 25 Network is a public action committee set up to encourage Christians to vote Democratic.

"There was a real desire and interest for a place that's appropriate for Christians to talk about faith and share the values in Chapter 25 of the Book of Matthew in which Jesus calls on us to care for the least among us," said Mara Vanderslice, the PAC's founder, who did similar outreach for the Kerry campaign in 2004.

"Americans see the price of gas going above $4, they're losing their jobs, their children are going overseas to fight and when they bow their heads, those are the issues -- not abortion or gay marriage – that they're really praying about."

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