Dispatch October 2008

Day of Reckoning

Has Barack Obama succeeded in his push to win religious voters?

In May, GOP strategist Dick Morris did his best to gauge the electoral fallout from the then-boiling controversy surrounding Senator Barack Obama and his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Appearing on The O’Reilly Factor, Morris predicted that “this guy, who used to have to convince people he wasn't a Muslim, now is electable only if he can convince people he never goes to church.” But in the months since, Obama has brushed off this kind of snap analysis and put together a networked, community-based religious outreach plan designed to put the Democratic party on the offense with religious swing voters. Heading into the last days of the race, it looks like this was the right call.

Poll junkies find it natural to focus on the faithful—those “values voters” who are said to have delivered a second term to George W. Bush. For a while this summer, Obama polled like a typical Democrat among this group—which is to say, he polled quite poorly compared to John McCain, who until late summer enjoyed an 18-point advantage among voters who attended church weekly or more. But as the race moves to a close, Obama is doing better than either John Kerry or Al Gore among religious voters: in mid-October the Pew Center released a poll suggesting that white mainline Protestants prefer Obama to McCain by 48-43, and that white Catholics prefer Obama 49-41. (With the same voters, Bush beat Kerry by 10 points and 13 points, respectively.) And, as Morris and others won’t let you forget, Obama is working uphill—against the 12 percent of the country that still believes he is a Muslim.

So what accounts for Obama’s impressive numbers among the collection plate crowd? It doesn’t hurt that the economy is tanking, and that McCain is less than beloved among evangelicals. But showing up is half the battle. The Illinois senator said as much in a debate in South Carolina last January, noting that “when you’re not going to church, you’re not talking to church folk…. It is important for us not to concede that ground.” In 2005, Obama was reportedly the only Democratic senator with a full-time staffer working on faith policy. But under Obama's direction, the party has increasingly used religion to take a progressive message to the heart of the GOP coalition—an onslaught that may prove decisive in this and future elections.

The first place to look is Denver. At the convention, DNC chairman Howard Dean and his deputy, ordained minister Leah Daughtry, kicked off festivities with the Democrats’ first annual Faith in Action gathering, which was part of a highly choreographed rollout of Obama’s own “Common Ground for Common Good” faith initiative. It was there that nuns and rabbis, Buddhists, Muslims, and countless others made the case for civic unity in a country of diverse faiths. Sean Casey, a prominent evangelical academic who now works for the Obama campaign, told me the meeting is “symbolic of what the Democratic Party stands for. Tens of thousands of faithful people have voted for Democrats,” he added. “We’re not driving wedges, we’re building coalitions.”

Colorado, which is shaping up to be a crucial state on November 4, was an impudent place to stage such an offensive: the town of Colorado Springs is known in some circles as the “Evangelical Vatican;” tearful Denver teens fall out en masse at “Tuesday Night Live” faith revivals; and a “Personhood Amendment” defining life as beginning at fertilization was successfully placed on the ballot for November. Nevertheless, Obama swept through Fort Collins, the site of a large Christian college, on his return from Hawaii last weekend—his fifth trip since May.

An even stronger place to look might be Iowa—the heavily evangelical state that launched Obama’s campaign for the highest office in the land. Throughout the summer of 2007, Obama made a grinding series of appearances at events geared specifically toward faith voters. Those Iowa events provided the template for future “American Values Forums” sponsored by the campaign, says one senior Obama staffer with knowledge of the platform on religion. These interfaith sessions, says the staffer, involve “people from the community gathered just to hear [and] to learn about Senator Obama’s faith and about how we can reconcile faith and politics in country and find common ground, even on the tough issues.”

One April gathering in Pittsburgh brought in about 50 curious believers, according to the Rev. Christine Glover, who ran the event. “I think this was the first time that the Democrats actually made this a part of their platform. They didn’t call it specifically religious, they called it ‘values.’ And they mixed faith and values so that everybody could participate,” she says. The campaign has held over 900 of these forums to date, in swing states like Missouri, Ohio, Florida and North Carolina—as well as Iowa, where Obama is sitting on a double-digit lead.

In many ways, this vigorous courtship crystallizes the campaign’s successful manipulation of both the new media universe and the activism that has characterized the faith community in the U.S. The unassuming town halls have grown into a complex, high-tech, multi-state effort now requiring a training call each Tuesday, wherein an aide walks volunteers through the campaign’s strategy for running house parties, tips for explaining Obama’s “Christian journey” and for “disagreeing without being disagreeable,” says the staffer. The groups are further equipped with a “curriculum” and materials that include a DVD with a welcoming message from the candidate himself.

Prominent surrogates, such as authors Donald Miller and Brian McLaren, have also made the case for Democrats at evangelical colleges, while Catholic leaders like legal scholar Doug Kmiec and former Indiana congressman Tim Roemer have joined with Jim Wallis’s Sojourners mission in reaching several thousands more. In July, the Obama campaign began issuing a weekly 'American Values Report' to Christian media outlets, with subsections asking readers to "Participate in the Values Question of the Week" or view "Spotlight On People of Faith" interviews. This form of organizing maximizes “testimony,” a key theological and social underpinning of protestant worshipers, particularly evangelicals. This is effective precisely because "it's easy to disagree on the level of ideas," says Joshua DuBois, director of religious affairs for Obama for America. "But it's tough to disagree with someone's story."

Obama sought to promote this more understated approach in his “Call to Renewal” speech on faith in 2006. But the presidential campaign has afforded him a national update that could pay dividends with Catholics in New Mexico, Methodists in Ohio or believers in many other purple states. Amy Sullivan notes presciently in The Party Faithful that the religious center and religious left have room to grow—and Obama-backed institution building (think faith-based initiatives, a war on poverty and a broader service corps) could ensure that the sixty percent of monthly churchgoers that now favor him stay with the Democratic ticket in future.

From the archives:

The Preacher (March 2006)
Bishop T. D. Jakes wants his flock not only to do good but to do well, and his brand of entrepreneurial spirituality has made him perhaps the most influential black leader in America today. By Sridhar Pappu

Burns Strider, director of Hillary Clinton’s faith outreach during the primary, sees progress, but notes that “four years does not equal 20 or 30 years of [conservative] organizing,” and says that a certain portion of the party is “terrified” by the incursion of faith into politics. But some architects of the new faith-based push are having to rub their eyes at its successes. One influential participant in a closed-door June gathering of religious leaders in downtown Washington—a simultaneous courtship of boldface names like Franklin Graham and T.D. Jakes was taking place at Obama headquarters in Chicago—shook his head in disbelief as he strode out onto F Street, describing the 20-person gathering as “the first Democratic meeting I’ve been to that ended in a prayer and with everyone holding hands.”

Presented by

Dayo Olopade is a reporter for The Daily Beast in Washington, and a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation.

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