The Democrats get religion

Will the political mission to fashion an evangelical glow around Barack Obama lead to the White House?

Published August 15, 2008 2:22PM (EDT)

James Dobson, who sits atop the fortress of "family values" at Focus on the Family, took time out of his daily radio show in June -- 18 minutes to be exact -- to lambaste a 2-year-old speech by Barack Obama about how his Christianity had shaped his political views. Obama, Dobson fulminated, was "deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own worldview, his own confused theology," while appealing to the "lowest common denominator of morality" by supporting abortion rights.

After Dobson's comments made headlines -- only because his media operation leaked the text of the radio show to the Associated Press the day before it aired -- an advertisement defending Obama appeared on Colorado Christian radio stations. "With all these stones being cast at Sen. Obama, it can be hard to know what to believe," a woman's voice gently intoned while a piano tinkled in the background. "But in Luke, Jesus taught us that we must listen to what a man says, because out of the overflow of his heart, his mouth speaks." The ad then played a clip from the speech that so riled Dobson, in which Obama laid out how his salvation at Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ informed his politics.

Speaking on behalf of Obama's heart was the Matthew 25 Network, a new political action committee launched by Democratic operative Mara Vanderslice, who served as John Kerry's religious outreach coordinator. The PAC, not affiliated with the Obama campaign, is named for the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus is said to have told his followers to feed the hungry and clothe the naked: "Whatever you did for one of the least of these, my brethren, you did for me."

Matthew 25 aspires to advance "a better Christian witness in politics" and challenge the dominance of conservative evangelicalism in swing states like Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, and perhaps even the Bible Belt strongholds of North Carolina and Georgia. Deploying a rapid response on Christian radio to vouch for Obama's faith, to defend him with what Vanderslice calls "an authentic Christian voice," will be the PAC's principal focus. "We're going to have our hands full with smears," she says, and combating them on English- and Spanish-language Christian radio "will be our niche." More recently, Matthew 25 condemned a John McCain campaign ad that appeared to suggest that Obama was the antichrist.

Matthew 25 has emerged out of the belief among evangelical Democrats that the Democratic Party needs to get religion to win. In 2005, led by Pentecostal minister Leah Daughtry, then chief of staff to the Democratic National Committee, the party initiated a "Faith in Action" agenda, intended to reach out to religious voters concerned about poverty, the environment and healthcare. Daughtry is now chairwoman of the Democratic National Convention, and for the first time, the convention, beginning Aug. 26 in Denver, will open with an interfaith gathering and include a People of Faith Caucus, which will meet throughout the week to hear faith leaders discuss how to mobilize voters.

The Obama campaign is engaged in its own religious outreach, with the candidate meeting with 30 high-profile religious leaders in early June, proposing his own version of Bush's faith-based initiative, and employing a religious outreach team. The campaign sends out a weekly "American Values Report" highlighting statements by Obama, profiles of religious supporters and blog responses to a weekly "values question," such as, "How do you gauge a candidate's character?" Soon the campaign will launch an initiative aimed at reaching out to younger evangelicals through house parties and other events. And on Saturday, Obama will appear with John McCain at a forum held by the Rev. Rick Warren at his megachurch, Saddleback, in California.

Fashioning a halo around Obama may be a wise political move, but not all religious activists, not to mention their secular allies, are sold on it. They see the strategy as pandering and question whether the candidate should be compelled to prove his religious credibility at all. Daniel Schultz, a United Church of Christ minister, the proprietor of the Daily Kos spinoff Street Prophets and an Obama supporter, recently fired off a post, "Matthew 25 Goes Full-On Obama's Jesus Juice," asking, "Do we really need a presidential campaign based on out-Jesusing the other side?"

Vanderslice, Matthew 25's driving force, has been at the center of the Democratic Party's stepped-up religious rhetoric since the 2004 election. She says her advice that Kerry talk about his faith and reach out to religious audiences was ignored, causing him to relinquish a significant voting bloc to Bush. (A senior Kerry campaign staffer disputes her account, calling it "rewritten history." The staffer says that Kerry, a religious person, did talk about his faith and meet with religious leaders, particularly Catholic leaders, during his presidential campaign.)

While Vanderslice claims to have been thwarted in the Kerry campaign, she believes she will be more effective in her support of Obama, who thrilled her with the words, "We worship an awesome God in the blue states," in his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. She has rallied support for Matthew 25 from a host of influential religious figures and politicians. They include Vicki Kennedy, the Catholic wife of the iconic senator from Massachusetts; Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the House majority whip; centrist and evangelical Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark.; and Brian McLaren, leader in the "emerging" church movement, whose books have influenced Obama's director of religious affairs, Joshua DuBois.

Vanderslice is no doubt aware of polls that show that more than half of white evangelicals -- Christians who claim to have had a "born again" experience and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as their savior -- are soundly conservative, and probably out of reach for Obama. So with a $500,000 budget, she has set Matthew 25's sights on the roughly 30 percent of evangelicals who are centrist or moderate. She believes Matthew 25 can win them over by stressing Obama's stance on ending the war in Iraq and helping the poor and vulnerable, at home and abroad. Those are the kinds of Christian values that appeal to moderates, she attests, rather than the religious right's fixation with opposing gay rights and abortion.

Matthew 25's mission may not depend entirely on a miracle. A recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows that McCain's support among white evangelicals has slipped 8 points below what George W. Bush enjoyed at the same time in 2004, although, to date, Obama has not picked up that support, as those voters remain in the undecided camp. A more recent Time magazine poll found that 70 percent of white evangelical likely voters plan to vote for McCain, roughly the same number who voted for Bush in 2000, with 7 percent undecided.

John Green, senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum, sees an opening. "My reading of the surveys suggests there is a real opportunity for Obama and his allies in Matthew 25" to move enough evangelical, mainline Protestant and Catholic voters to the Democratic column to spell victory in November. Obama would not have to win a majority of evangelicals, Green says. Even a 10 to 15 percent gain over Kerry's 22 percent showing among evangelicals could make a difference, particularly in Colorado, Virginia and the Midwestern swing states, where evangelicals are less conservative than their Southern counterparts.

Matthew 25 plans to tap new voters by highlighting the support of evangelical leaders, who challenge both the religious right's orthodoxy and its claim to represent all evangelicals. McLaren, author, most recently, of "Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crisis and a Revolution of Hope," is a preeminent figure in the emerging church movement, which eschews everything typically associated with church: a building, a pastor with authority, a not-to-be questioned text. Instead, going to church can involve meeting around a pool table or in a living room, and having a dialogue rather than a sermon.

In a letter posted on the PAC's Web site, McLaren states, "We've watched too many members of our faith communities be manipulated by cynical politicians who knew what tune to play to get people of faith marching obediently in their parade." McLaren adds that Christians may not be in agreement with every detail of Obama's campaign, but says "we're electing a president, not a Messiah."

"The idea of Matthew 25 is to say, as people of Christian faith -- and Jewish people and Muslims -- our faith motivates us to be concerned about the other, not just us," McLaren says. "Our faith makes us be concerned about those who are most vulnerable. Our vote is going to be oriented not just toward self-interest, but toward the common good."

Tom Sheridan, a Catholic and a well-connected lobbyist for HIV/AIDS and antipoverty causes, who was one of Matthew 25's early organizers, says he would like to see Obama lay out a plan for his first 100 days based on the "corporal works of mercy," the cornerstone of Catholic social justice teaching. The Republican Party, says Sheridan, "would label me a tax-and-spend liberal. But if a candidate said I would like to see us all called to corporate works of mercy, and my policy will address those things, suddenly people who would have never listened to you before will be listening."

But Schultz, the United Church of Christ minister, objects to the kind of evangelical language that Matthew 25 uses in its advertising. "If evangelicals are the dominant voice, where does that leave the mainline perspective? Or Jews, or anyone? The question my secular friends would have about that is, 'So do I have to pledge eternal faith in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior if I want to run for president?'"

Ronald Lindsay, executive director of the Center for Inquiry's Council for Secular Humanism, is also bothered by the holy-rolling rhetoric. "When you equate religion with values, it reinforces the public perception, which is clearly erroneous, that to be a good person, you have to believe in God," he says.

Matthew 25's Web site juxtaposes a photograph of a beatific Obama with Jesus' words from Matthew. David Gushee, a prominent evangelical and a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta, questions the wisdom of placing a biblical imprimatur on a candidate. "The problem is appropriating a biblical theme and saying this is why we should support one candidate or another," he says. "I don't go there, I don't cross that line. I prefer to be clear about what our values are, and to say to all candidates, we challenge you to meet our values."

For Gushee, those values include the candidate's positions on torture (Gushee heads a group of religious and secular leaders opposed to the Bush administration's use of torture), war, the environment and poverty. He points out that some evangelicals are likely to be attracted to Obama because of his stances on social justice issues or health are; still others might be drawn to him "because of the evidence this person has thought deeply about religion in public life."

For Obama to make inroads with religious voters not traditionally inclined to the Democratic Party, he must overcome one major obstacle: abortion. While Obama supports reproductive rights, Matthew 25, along with other religious activists, aims to shift public discourse away from a showdown over Roe v. Wade (or "criminalization," as Vanderslice puts it) and toward "abortion reduction." Abortion reduction aims to decrease the number of abortions by reducing the number of unintended pregnancies. It also asserts it can increase the number of pregnancies carried to term by improving women's economic standing and promoting adoption.

Last week, abortion reduction language was written into the Democratic Party platform, an act hailed by its evangelical advocates. The Rev. Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, an evangelical antipoverty advocacy group, called it a "significant step forward." Joel Hunter, a Florida megachurch pastor and registered Republican, declared that "pro-lifers of both parties can now support Senator Obama." Clinton family advisor Rev. Tony Campolo, a member of the party's platform-writing committee, said that religious antiabortion voters are now "waiting to hear from Barack Obama that he sees this as a moral issue and issue of conscience."

Although pro-choice advocates, who also champion reducing the need for abortion, were pleased with the platform language, the term "abortion reduction," and some of the elements of legislative proposals, rankle longtime reproductive rights advocates such as Kate Michelman, former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, and Frances Kissling, former president of Catholics for a Free Choice, who are supporting Obama. And Schultz isn't buying the fact that the strategy will sway evangelical voters. Abortion "is perhaps the most polarizing issue in contemporary politics," he recently wrote on Street Prophets. "The pro-life vote isn't going to be won over by hazy talk about 'abortion reduction.'"

For now, pollsters say it's too soon to tell whether the new religious face of Democratic politicking will lead to the White House. James Penning, professor of political science at Calvin College, and coauthor of the college's National Survey on Religion and Public Life, says Obama does have "the potential to pick up votes at the margins," particularly of moderate evangelicals. As for Matthew 25, he says, "until it convinces a large number of people that it's in for the long haul, and not based on crass partisan politics, it will have a difficult time" attracting support beyond its base of Christians already aligned with the Democratic Party. Green, the Pew religious scholar, agrees. While the opportunity is there, he says, "we just don't know how big that opportunity is."

By Sarah Posner

Sarah Posner is the senior editor of Religion Dispatches, where she writes about politics. She is also the author of God's Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters" (PoliPoint Press, 2008).

MORE FROM Sarah Posner

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2008 Elections Abortion Barack Obama Religion