Monday, June 30, 2008

Obama and the Evangelicals

A number of writings whom I respect have taken up the topic recently, all writing in light of James Dobson's recent critique of Obama's use of the Bible:

1. Ross Douthat:
[T]here's no question that Obama's overt religiosity, his emphasis on social justice, and his team's savvy religious outreach make him a more attractive figure to many evangelical voters than any other Democratic nominee of recent vintage. Factor in John McCain's reticence about his own faith, his much-publicized spats with religious-right pooh-bahs, his obvious discomfort with issues like abortion and gay marriage and his disorganized, behind-the-eight-ball staff, and you seem to have a recipe for real Democratic inroads among a constituency that the GOP has owned for a long time now. This places Dobson, never the most politically-savvy operator, in an obvious bind: He's on the record saying he won't vote for McCain in the general election (an "undorsement" that came to late to actually affect the GOP primary campaign), but he no doubt doesn't want to be perceived as throwing the election to a pro-choice Democrat -- or worse, losing a generation of Christians to the lure of the religious left.

Of course, Obama is in a bind as well. If he moved to the center on abortion, a knowledgeable religion journalist remarked to me last week, he could win half of evangelicals under 40. But can he move to the center on abortion - by flip-flopping on partial-birth abortion, say, while making a big deal about embracing the (largely-symbolic) abortion-reduction plan being pressed by Democrats for Life -- after a bruising primary campaign in which he barely beat out a feminist icon with unimpeachable pro-choice bona fides? I've assumed that the answer is no and no again, not least because he's already ahead in the polls, and doesn't need to look for potentially gamechanging maneuvers that might blow up in his face. But if Obama wants a historic mandate, rather than a narrow win -- if he wants to cut the heart out of the GOP coalition and leave the Republicans for dead -- then breaking with his party's abortion orthodoxy to go hard after the evangelical vote is one obvious way to do it.

2. Michael Gerson, writing in the Washington Post:
Obama is properly understood as a man of the religious left, in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr. . . . [Obama] seems determined to call an evangelical bluff: Since you now praise King as a model of religious involvement in politics, you need at least to consider me.

The greatest obstacle to this consideration is abortion. I've seen no good evidence that evangelicals are becoming less pro-life (a previous Pew poll indicated that young evangelicals are actually more pro-life than their elders). To blunt this issue, Obama calls attention to his views on adoption, teen pregnancy and the sacredness of sex. He insists he is open to late-term abortion restrictions, if they are accompanied by broad exceptions for the health of the mother. But when the up-or-down political decisions came, Obama would not support a ban on partial-birth abortion or even legal protections for infants who are born alive after the procedure.

An evangelical vote for Obama requires a large mental adjustment: "I like his views on poverty or torture or climate change, even though he cannot bring himself to oppose the most brutal form of abortion." This may work for some, particularly more loosely affiliated evangelicals. But for most pro-life people, the protection of innocent life is not one issue among many, it is the most basic, foundational commitment of a just society. And John McCain has his own appeal to these voters -- remaining pro-life while opposing torture, addressing climate change and championing human rights in places such as Burma and Sudan. So far, McCain's support among evangelicals is holding up -- a recent poll shows McCain with a three to one advantage over Obama.

In today's environment of discontent and reassessment, a Democratic presidential candidate might achieve a historic political breakthrough with religious voters. Obama has great advantages in this attempt -- except on the issue that matters most.

3. Collin Hansen, writing at CT Online, looks at the Dobson-Obama dustup through the lens of hermeneutics.

Speaking of Collin, last week he was featured on Fox News to discuss Obama, McCain, and evangelicals:

Finally, a couple of items of interest related to all of this: Time Magazine looks at Obama's recent off-the-record meeting in Chicago with some Christian leaders; and John McCain's private meeting yesterday with Billy and Franklin Graham in the elder Graham's home in Montreat.