On June 11, Barack Obama invited 43 evangelical leaders to Chicago for an off-the-record meeting. Stephen Strang, the founder of Charisma magazine, asked about abortion and reported Obama’s reply:
He came across at thoughtful and much more of a centrist that I would have expected. He did not appear to be the crazy leftist that is being supported by George Soros and his leftist friends. Sen. Obama looked me in the eye as he answered my question, almost as if it were a one-on-one interview. … I believe [he] won over the loyalties of many.
Two days earlier, Robert Novak published a column entitled, “McCain’s Evangelical Problem.” He noted that Focus on the Family founder James Dobson—who commands a worldwide radio audience of 200 million—has not retracted his January 2007 pronouncement, “I would not vote for John McCain under any circumstances.” Since McCain won the Republican nomination, Dobson has extended two invitations to visit him in Colorado Springs. The campaign declined both.
Religious outreach isn’t McCain’s strong suit. There was the John Hagee episode. And the Rod Parsley ordeal. And the candidate’s straight talk about not deeming baptism “necessary.” And his inability to decide whether he is an Episcopalian or a Baptist. Maybe both. Probably not much of either.
It pays for Republicans to say their prayers: one in four Americans identifies himself as evangelical, and in 2004, George W. Bush won four-fifth of their votes. Barack Obama can win without converting a majority of churchgoers. John McCain would be hard pressed.
Since 1980, evangelicals have been reliable furniture for the GOP—easily moved and mostly unintrusive. A single syllable locked them in: Roe. But times are changing. A new survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows that over the last two years, Republican Party identification has dropped 15 percentage points among white evangelicals aged 18-29. And the traditional Christian issue profile is shifting: in a recent Beliefnet poll, 85 percent of respondents ranked the economy as “most important” or “very important.” They listed ending the Iraq War, poverty, torture, and cleaning up government ahead of abortion. Gay marriage ranked even lower.
From Rick Warren’s pulpit to Jim Wallis’s publications, American Christians are now as likely to hear about global warming and AIDS as family values. Perhaps preachers realized they could better fill pews by demonizing carbon emissions than railing about “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” Soft social-justice talk is far less divisive than those conservative staples euphemistically called “social issues.” And the former community organizer is much more fluent in this language than the nominal Episo-Baptist who denounced Christian leaders as “agents of intolerance.”
In some ways, George W. Bush bears blame for driving this critical constituency from the Republican fold. Before 9/11, his animating initiative, detailed by David Kuo in Tempting Faith, was a plan to stroke evangelical voters (and the boss’s own messiah complex) by basically converting Christian charities into government agencies. From malaria in Africa to after-school programs, nothing was beyond reach.
It’s predictable that this brand of federal faith would soon shift loyalties to the candidate promising the most generous programs. And Obama is a perfect social gospel pitchman. As Stephen Mansfield writes in his forthcoming The Faith of Barack Obama, “Obama’s faith infuses his public policy, so that his faith is not just limited to the personal realms of his life, it also informs his leadership.” This month he plans to launch a pair of organizations to appeal to “people of faith”: Matthew 25 and Joshua Generation Project.
Much as McCain is accused of running for Bush’s third term, it’s actually Barack Obama who’s borrowing Bush’s electoral math and building on his faith-based strategy. Mike DeMoss, who runs a top evangelical PR firm, told the NY Post that Obama could get 40 percent of the evangelical vote compared to John Kerry’s 21 and Al Gore’s 30 percent.
Compassionate conservatism is bearing fruit–and Democrats are reaping the harvest.