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Obama and the Evangelicals: Yes, They Can

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Those who thought that with the end of the Bush II era evangelical influence would also wane, are up for a disappointment. That is why few picks of the incoming Obama presidency have stirred up as much controversy as the choice of Rick Warren, founder and pastor of an evangelical megachurch in California, to deliver the opening invocation during the presidential inaugural ceremony. Not even the appointments of the arch-rival Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, and the retention of the Bush-appointed Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, did ignite such furious debates. Rick Warren, like most conservative evangelicals, is staunchly opposed to abortion and same sex marriage. This latter issue, in particular, is seen as highly contentious among large portions of democratic voters. Commentators have rushed to describe the controversy as one between liberals which felt betrayed by Obama’s Bush-like choice, and those instead who applauded this move as yet one more demonstration of Obama’s willingness to reach out across partisan lines all the way into the Christian Right and unite the country. Both sides, though, miss the point: evangelicals are here to stay, and they are growing increasingly powerful as well as mainstream.

Closing the “God Gap”
That religion plays an important role in American politics is not a novelty. During the past American elections a Gallup poll, for example, found that only 45% of Americans would ever vote for an atheist for president, compared to 55% for a homosexual or 94% for a black one. With roughly 26% of the American population considered to be evangelical (evangelicals include the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God, and a host of other conservative protestant denominations), this group has become during the past decades the single largest religious denomination in the US (Catholics are estimated to be around 22% and mainline protestants (such as Episcopalian/Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist and Lutheran churches) at 16%. Evangelical might was clearly on display when John McCain and Barack Obama rushed to Rick Warren’s Saddleback megachurch in August 2008 for their first ever encounter as presidential candidates. Clearly in the past election the evangelical vote, which was monolithic in its support for Bush, was up for grabs.

While evangelicals still carried enormous clout within the Republican party, witnessed by the incredible successes of the Baptist preacher and former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee during the primaries and Sarah Palin’s Vice-presidential pick, Barack Obama has nevertheless succeeded in drawing parts of the movement into the Democratic orbit. During the presidential campaign, the Obama camp mounted the most serious outreach for a Democratic candidate to woo so called value voters away from the Republicans. “American values forums” and “faith house parties” were organized to discuss issues of faith and politics, while the “Matthew 25 Network” and the “Joshua Generation campaign” were launched to target Christian groups and young evangelicals. While not fully closing the “God gap” with Republicans, commentators acknowledged that Obama clearly narrowed it. No Democrat, at least since Jimmy Carter, has seemed so at ease in making his faith public as president Obama.

Hope and Purpose Overlapping
If change has come regarding God, that’s more within the Democratic party than anywhere else. Indeed, in matters of faith and religion president Obama may have more in common with former president Bush, than most would like to think. Similarly to Bush, and unlike most Democrats before him, Obama is comfortable talking in detail about his faith. Obama’s activities as a community organizer resonate clearly with religious audiences. During his campaign he also promised to expand on some of Bush’s faith-based initiatives and is likely to keep his promise. The title of his most famous book The Audacity of Hope is inspired by a sermon delivered by his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and his much lauded rhetoric draws its inspiration from the civil rights rhetoric whose origin and growth lies in the Baptist churches of the South. Like George W. Bush, Obama has found his faith relatively late in life and has a compelling story of conversion. During the campaign, he even won the endorsement of Kirbyjon Caldwell, a Huston megachurch evangelical pastor, who gave the invocation at both George W. Bush’s inaugurations as well as performing the wedding ceremony for his daughter Jenna. 

If Barack Obama represents a new breed of Democrats, less shy to talk publicly about faith and to reach out to evangelicals, similarly Rick Warren represents a new and rising style of evangelicalism. One which increasingly favors expanding the evangelicals’ agenda beyond the religious right’s preoccupation (and fixation) with abortion and same-sex marriage, to broader social concerns such as the environment, poverty, and health issues including the global fight against HIV/AIDS.

As the Democrats widen their message to include faith and evangelicals expand their agenda to broader social issues, both sides have drawn closer. Many concerns of Mr. Warren, and of newer generations of evangelicals, overlap with president’s Obama emphasis on universal health care and his fight against exclusion, poverty and HIV/AIDS. Where Obama seeks to inspire “hope”, Warren is in the business of proving “purpose” (his “Purpose Driven Life” book is an international bestseller with over 30 million copies in print). When asked whether he is right-wing or left-wing, Mr. Warren likes to reply that he’s for the “whole bird” since “you’ve got to have the two wings two fly”. Obama’s insistence that there are no “Red states and Blue states” but only “one United States of America” resonates here. The fact is that those who wanted a clean break from George W. Bush’s faith inspired politics may be disappointed. No matter what liberal Democrats and secular Europeans would like to believe, evangelicals are here to stay for the foreseeable future and their power will expand. However, by increasingly becoming mainstream, as the case of Mr. Warren suggests, they are also likely to grow more moderate.