Preaching The Gospel

Monday, November 3, 2008

Preach and Reach - Part I

Preach and Reach
Despite his liberal record, Barack Obama is making a lot of evangelicals think twice.
John W. Kennedy |

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.)

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