Those of us who study religious politicking have had a most eventful spring. We have experienced the YouTube stylings of Father Michael Pfleger. We have had further encounters with the teachings of Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Articles about John McCain’s difficulties with Evangelicals now come out at 15-second intervals, so we have been pretty captivated by that as well.
With all the ructions of the past few months, there has been little time to step back and see the Big Picture. It may be helpful, then, to pause and identify leading F and V trends in the second quarter of 2008:
The continuing maturation of Evangelical America’s political project (Notice, I say “maturation,” not “collapse”): Little we have seen this year indicates that Evangelicals are going to line up in a massive, unified block and alter the outcome of the general as they did in 2004. Isn’t that a collapse? Kind of. But only for those few Christians who gauge the health of their souls by scrutinizing exit poll data.
Rejecting the narrative of collapse, I prefer to see a maturation process under way. After all, religious movements in democratic societies grow and prosper not because of ideological homogeneity and doctrinal rigidity, but as a result of intellectual diversity and theological open-mindedness.
Three recent events suggest that precisely such growth may be afoot. The first was the Compassion Forum sponsored by a group (Faith in Public Life) that is forcing secular liberals to learn how to tell White Evangelicals apart.
The second was the publication of the Evangelical Manifesto–a sort of theological Declaration of Independence aimed at questioning the political engagements of Fundamentalists and Right-Wing Evangelicals. Last (and overlapping with the previous two developments) was the emergence of Progressive Evangelicals. Their willingness to think about issues other than gays and abortion (and to bolt the GOP) has changed the complexion of the 2008 race.
This is not to say that we will be seeing the rise of PACS like Evangelicals for Nader, or NARALleulah!: Conservative Christians for Choice, any time soon. But the Movement is slowly diversifying and that bodes well for almost everybody.
And Barack saw that it was good: The Senator from Illinois is the greatest beneficiary of the aforementioned maturation. He is also the politician who can best cultivate its continued development. The Obama/Evangelical synergy of the past few months suggests a variety of forthcoming storylines. For starters, Progressives will not only vote but get out the vote for him. Their electoral good works should raise the overall percentage of Evangelicals who go Democrat from the anemic 22% of John Kerry to numbers like 30, 35 and possibly even 40%. Further, many of those Evangelicals who don’t like Obama, don’t necessarily hate him either. Given that McCain has yet to persuade them, some may forego the ballot box on November 4.
GOP Faith-based VP Angle: In light of the preceding it might seem that Obama is winning the battle for God Votes. He is. But it’s still early and Senator McCain could infuse some energy into his Faith and Values outreach, by selecting a running mate with neon-light-blinking appeal to either conservative Evangelicals or Catholics.
Atheists and Agnostics: Still Not Rocking the Vote: The Evangelical political project may be maturing or may be collapsing, but at least they have a political project. While nonbelievers roared in 2005-2007, their voices and issues have been virtually non-existent in the 2008 campaign.
In order to achieve greater political relevancy in 2012 — if that is, in fact, the goal–the following will be essential: 1) the rise of a cadre of political theorists, as opposed to critics of religion, who can rethink and reinvigorate the broader project of American secularism, 2) skilled leadership that can harness and direct the energy of the youthful community of nonbelievers, 3) a fundraising apparatus, and, 4) accurate census data that will identify those congressional districts in which atheists, agnotics and those who share common ground with them may be able to make noise in coming congressional races.
Obama less holier than thou: Obama’s announcement that he was leaving Trinity United Church of Christ was something of political/psychological breakthrough. It was Father Pfleger’s rant that finally put him over the edge. But in all truth he should have left Trinity months ago, maybe prior to even announcing his candidacy.
In any case, his resignation signaled the moment that he fully embraced “cynical politics” (otherwise known as “politics”). It marked the moment when he understood that his long-suffering Party doesn’t need any more nice guys or martyrs. It marked the moment where he grasped how important it was to his supporters that he win this election.
And so, in the second quarter of 2008 a less holy, more calculating Obama has emerged. Some who were initially excited by the Hopemonger — Muslim Americans, gun-control advocates, proponents of campaign finance-reform, Scarlett Johansson — have been rather rudely reminded that, to paraphrase Reverend Wright, a politician is not a pastor.
(For more information about religion and the candidates check out Faith 2008 by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs.)
By Jacques Berlinerblau |
June 30, 2008; 5:05 AM ET
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