Obama’s Broad Appeal to Faithful — and Faithless

The Democrats’ efforts to prove that they don’t hate religion (even though they don’t and never did) and engage in … Continued

The Democrats’ efforts to prove that they don’t hate religion (even though they don’t and never did) and engage in strenuous religious outreach are being hailed as a success in election post-mortems. Some of the Democrats’ chief cheerleaders in this effort, like the non-profit Faith in Public Life and Steven Waldman, editor of the web site Beliefnet, highlight polling data to claim that they were right: by shedding their supposedly anti-religionist past, Democrats have made gains (in some cases, quite marginal ones) with religious voters.

There’s no proof that the Democrats’ faith outreach — as opposed to the wildly unpopular Republican Party and the Democrats’ superior message on the economy, the war, and a host of other issues — is what turned voters’ heads. Given the vociferousness of the faith-outreach advocates, though, such efforts are likely to be sustained and replicated in future campaigns, and that’s not a good thing.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve heard many faith advocates say that they just want their voices heard in the public square. Who’s stopping them, though? It’s a myth that Democrats have somehow shut religious folks out of the political process. Religious voices have been behind some of the nation’s great reform movements (and, sadly, as in the passage of gay marriage bans, behind some of the most retrograde movements as well). Political engagement by faith-based groups is one thing; political candidates straining to prove their religious credibility, however, is another matter entirely.

Advocates for the heightened Democratic faith talk, like the journalist Amy Sullivan, author of the book The Party Faithful, have argued that religious voters want to hear how candidates’ faith shapes their values. The compulsion to prove one’s faithfulness has been limited, so far, to proving candidates’ Christianity, and even there, the proof has trended toward evangelical language, to the chagrin of mainline Christians. And what of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists and others, whose outspokenness about their beliefs could be a liability? Could they ever prove they are up to the task of having the values to be President of the United States?

If voters want to know about the candidates’ values, they should take a look at their political positions. If voters believe that Jesus calls them to care for the least of these, for example, a comparison of the Democratic and Republican tax policies would be far more revealing than campaign-speak peppered with passages from Matthew.

The faith advocates claim that Obama’s new religious icons, like Rick Warren, who hosted the forum at which a pained Obama attempted to appeal to a conservative evangelical audience, represent a new broader agenda for evangelicals, with a focus on poverty and the environment rather than just abortion and gay marriage. But with Warren’s midnight hour appeal to his followers to vote for California’s Proposition 8, he seemed just as committed to the old religious right as ever.

Obama won not because conservative white evangelicals or weekly churchgoers voted for him in slightly larger numbers than they voted for John Kerry. He won because he appealed to a broad audience, the faithful and the godless. That’s the revelation of the exit polls — not the narrowing of the “God gap.”

Sarah Posner writes The FundamentaList, a weekly roundup of news about the religious right for The American Prospect Online and has covered religion and politics for the Prospect, The Nation, Salon, The Huffington Post, and other publications. She is author of “Word of Faith movement, God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters.”

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  • Athena4

    In the end, Obama’s victory had very little to do with anything religious – unless you count people who were leery of putting someone like Sarah Palin a heartbeat away from the Presidency. The reason Obama won, IMHO, was that people voted with their pocketbooks, not their prayer books. Economic troubles are hitting everyone – regardless of whether one is a Christian, Jew, Hindu, atheist, or other religion.

  • don16

    I can’t believe the insensitivity of the title of this piece. How would you have felt reading an article referring to “the rational and the irrational”? Not very good, I’ll guess. That’s how your title makes me feel.

  • meand2

    Obama’s actions indicate he is a decent man, who refused to stoop to the level of the Republican smear machine employed by McCain. A machine which backfired and alienated some who might otherwise have voted for McCain. Palin’s religion and lack of qualifications also worried some voters.

  • michael_from_sydney

    If folk on this blog don’t mind an overseas (Australian) perspective… I’ve often thought the prominence accorded to professions of religious faith in political discourse in the US strange. Surely, any candidate can say whatever they like in their campaign rhetoric about their faith. They just need to consult their pollster’s focus groups to determine which key religious themes to emphasise or avoid, and there they have it! I agree with this article that it is more important to evaluate the compassionate impact of the respective candidates’ declared policies upon the most impoverished, marginalised and powerless members of society, than to their public professions of faith or piety. You will be able to make a personal political decision in a way which is better informed as to its moral and ethical consequences – and isn’t that what moral political involvement is all about?As an aside, doesn’t America value the mutual respect bewteen faiths which flows from adherence to the separation of Church and State any more? This insistence in political debate uon analysing candidates’ personal religious faith as a prerequisite for serious consideration for an elected high public office seems to run against such a separation. How can a nation seriously say “no religious test shall be set as a qualification for public office”, and then proceed to set exactly such religious tests in its public political discourse when considering potenetial candidates for the highest public office in the land?

  • michael_from_sydney

    DON16 – I hear you. People can have faith in many things, not just the God I happen to worship. That should be respected in the language believers use towards others.Personally, I don’t agree with the contrast between “faithful” and “godless” in the opening paragraph. I happen to believe in the God described by the Catholic Church, and believe that God exists for all people, whether they individually believe in Him or not. Therefore, I don’t believe there ARE any “Godless” people – just those who don’t acknowledge Him.

  • spidermean2

    michael_from_sydney wrote “I’ve often thought the prominence accorded to professions of religious faith in political discourse in the US strange. “One should understand that the U.S is and has been a very religious nation and a big portion of its population are conservative and hate liberalism. One should understand that the Law of Separation of Church and State was initiated by Baptists who were persecuted by the government for their “strange” religious doctrine. Contrary to what other people think, that law is a godly law.One should also understand that the U.S was built by Puritans and other religious groups who escaped Europe’s worldliness and religious persecutions.”no religious test shall be set as a qualification for public office” means equal opportunities for all of any religious stripe but it doesn’t mean people should elect an IDIOT ATHEIST to rule a godly nation.One should also understand that this nation won’t be a world leader if not for its godly people with its just and upright policies towards the world.One should also know that this nation will suffer and will lost its preeminence for a brief period of time because of its rising ungodliness and will only regain it once the ungodly burns.

  • delusional1

    “Over the past couple of years, I’ve heard many faith advocates say that they just want their voices heard in the public square. Who’s stopping them, though? It’s a myth that Democrats have somehow shut religious folks out of the political process.”Where were you when the Dems refused to let Gov. Bob Casey of PA speak at the Democratic National Convention because of his pro-life stance? When you state a position, you should al least be truthful.

  • delusional1

    meand2 Author Profile Page:I hope the Evangelicals who make up so much of the Republican base will spend more time acting like Christians and leading by example instead of trying to impose their beliefs on all of us through legislation.****************************************It will be OK for Obama and his cohort to impose their beliefs on all of us through legislation, right? All legislation has belief behind it. FOCA has the belief that there are no good reasons to restrict the killing of unborn babies at any time. And if you work in a hospital, he is going to make you provide abortions to those who want them. Wait until Obama signs the FOCA and watch what happens to the health care in America when Catholic hospitals (1/3 of total hospitals) close their doors.

  • michael_from_sydney

    Spidermean2 – thanks for your response. Can I jsut run down what you’ve said:1) Agreed. In this, the US differs markedly from Australia and the rest of the Anglo New World, which generally havs a far more hedonistic culture. 2) Thanks for this – I didn’t know that. I hope you’re not implying that Baptist doctrines alone are godly. I – and I suspect billions of my fellow Catholics over the past 2000 years – can’t agree with that.3) Agreed.4) Not sure who who are alleging the “idiot atheist” is – personally, I am not privy to the innermost theological beliefs of Barack Obama, and I doubt that you are. Also, it is hardly doing Christ’s will to be setting yourself up as a judge of someone else’s virtue or faith – and I recall Scripture that specifically admonishes us not to say to your neighbour ‘You fool!’ (Matthew 5).5) I humbly submit that the USA is, rightly, considered a beacon for the advancement of material wealth in this world (for a select few private individuals), but it was most emphatically NOT seen as a MORAL world leader during the eight years of the incumbent President. The overwhelming majority of the world outside the US has strong hopes this may change under the incoming President.6) The perception of the “ungodliness” of the USA is not new – it has been around ever since it has been seen by the rest of the world as devoting itself as a nation to the unbridled pursuit of material wealth (ie, “treasures on Earth”), instead of devoting itself to bettering the lives of the poorest, least powerful of its citizens. I hope this will change under Barack Obama.Good conversing with you!

  • cletus1

    As an atheist, I don’t think I have anything to contribute just by virtue of that fact. There is no atheist program to which I subscribe. I did not vote for Obama, but I wish him the best. I won’t vote for a party anymore like the Republicans, who have become wholly sectarian, as I do not share their theology or their willingness to use the aparatus of state to thrust it upon me. Hopefully, at some point the libertarians will become a viable electoral alternative.

  • spidermean2

    michael_from_sydney wrote ” The perception of the “ungodliness” of the USA is not new – it has been around ever since it has been seen by the rest of the world as devoting itself as a nation to the unbridled pursuit of material wealth (ie, “treasures on Earth”), instead of devoting itself to bettering the lives of the poorest, least powerful of its citizens”Im sorry to say this but ignorance produces stupidity. The U.S is and has been the top choice of people around the world to immigrate into and live permanently. Im not sure if that could be possible if the government forsook its citizens. And by the way, Obama’s family can be considered as one of the poorest and least powerful just a few years back. Is that what you call forsaken? The people you see as devoting itself to the pursuit of wealth are also the poorest and least powerful immigrants who normally can’t do it in their country of origin because of the stupidity of their government and their system. America is a great country. If you think that it is stupid, you could be right. But the fact is, the rest of the world are much dumber. Blame the “ungodliness” perception to Hollywood and its morality. The pursuit of wealth is NOT immoral especially if part of your wealth is given back to society thru philanthropy.Also the Iraq war was NOT immoral. What makes it immoral is there are people who would explode themselves up thinking they are moral and would be rewarded with 72 virgins. The U.S government strategy to that kind of warfare was stupid. Stupid because they try to fight the insurgency with American soldiers with rifles and not with unmanned drones. What do they expect for that kind of strategy? Few Casualty? What used to be a just war easily became a dumb war. The locals should do the dirty work. It’s their country after all.There are a lot of wars coming and our soldiers must not tire themselves with these little wars. The unmanned drones can handle them.

  • sparrow4

    spidermean- I think, sadly for us, you’ll find the situation vastly changed in the next few years. I don’t know that I can say the days of America’s greatness are over- I hope not, and I think if anyone can get us back on the right track, it is Obama. And not because I think he is any kind of Messiah, but because he inspired us to do more and to do better. I guess I want to say that he changed us, he made us want to be involved in the political process again. He made us feel like we really are invested in our government again.

  • spidermean2

    Sparrow wrote “I don’t know that I can say the days of America’s greatness are over.”As I’ve said, if America is stupid, the rest of the world is much dumber.How can America lose its leadership if it is still the wisest among the dummies?The legend of the Phoenix, the bird which burned but became much stronger as a result, actually refers to America.America will burn and recover but its enemies will burn and not recover.The day America lose its leadership is the start of a countdown towards Doomsday. The dumber can’t rule the world. The world will burn as a result of that. That is the law of nature. That is how God designed it.(Yes, there is some truth to some legends and it’s not a coincidence that America’s symbol is a powerful bird.)

  • EnemyOfTheState

    From an atheist’s perspective, there seem to be two types of Christianity: One type views faith as a stepping stone to god, views all people as worthy of god’s love, and dedicates itself to improving the lives of the less fortunate.The other type views faith as an exclusive ‘club’, issues harsh judgments on all those who are not members of this elite group, and rarely mentions the poor.If we had more of the first type and fewer of the latter type, I think the world would be a better place. Of course, people would still need their invisible friend in the sky, but at least they would be better neighbors.

  • coloradodog

    How incredibly arrogant and insulting to call those who are not white intolerant evangelicals “the faithless” Faith has nothing to do with religious denominations. Faith is a personal belief in the now and the future. It can come through God, Jesus, The Great Spirit, Mohammed, Buddha, the sun, the moon, the stars or smoking a good joint. Neochristians who have hijacked poor old Jesus and now plan to hijack the Constitution have no right to hijack the word “faith” as well. Go primp, pretend, pose and posture with your own on Sunday and leave the rest of us the hell alone.

  • efavorite

    Michael from Sydney, you say: “I…believe that God exists for all people, whether they individually believe in Him or not. Therefore, I don’t believe there ARE any “Godless” people – just those who don’t acknowledge Him.”OK, but I hope you don’t make a point of saying that directly to atheists. It’s sort of like telling a friend that you believe there’s a fairy living in their mailbox that’s making sure all the important mail is delivered. If something doesn’t come, it means that the fairy decided it was not important. The friend can’t see the fairy and neither can you, but you firmly believe it’s there.Best to keep something like that to yourself, I think.

  • CCNL

    And lets give Thanks that there is only one Spiderman2/Spidermean2 aka Canyon Shearer, Bible Thumper, Fortune Teller and Severely Brainwashed in that Old Time Religion!!!!

  • hyjanks

    Unfortunately, it will be decades if not hundreds of years before a “godless” citizen will be seriously considered for high office in this country. The True Believers in Gods, spooks, witches and ghosts have the upper hand in chosing all candidates of national stature.

  • garethharris

    No matter how we try to cover it up, religious declarations are part of displaying loyalty to the existing establishment. This dates from ancient times when anyone who would not swear an oath to the emperor and Jupiter was considered an atheist and often dispatched on the spot.What has changed?

  • ebleas

    “As an aside, doesn’t America value the mutual respect bewteen faiths which flows from adherence to the separation of Church and State any more?”“How can a nation seriously say “no religious test shall be set as a qualification for public office”, and then proceed to set exactly such religious tests in its public political discourse when considering potenetial candidates for the highest public office in the land?”Regards from the USA.

  • sparrow4

    In a very odd way, it’s almost as if religion becomes a marketing tool for politicians. And we become willingly complicit it falling for it hook, line and sinker. Faithful and faithless (or godless, as she says also)made for a catchy title but don’t forget Sarah Posner writes for the Fundamentalist List and while she is making some salient points, there is an underlying fundamentalist sour grapes regarding the election. But still, she’s right- Obama’s victory owes little to the evangelists and religious right- Posner seems to be almost bragging about it, but there’s no real reason for that.We didn’t set aside our differences when we voted for Obama, we found a common ground to vote for him. That’s very powerful stuff- something the religious right doesn’t want to happen. The idea that people will vote for economic, communal and national values over a 1 or 2 issue agenda frightens them. Family values in a community vacuum are meaningless. when people can’t feed their families, they really won’t make anti-choice a priority. still they managed to do enough damage with prop 8, but the coming fight on that will be even more damaging to them.Posner says people voted their pocketbooks- I say yes, but there was a lot more happening. I’ll stick my neck out and say I think he would have won anyway- because the McCain/Palin ticket was so bankrupt in so many ways. When he picked the Gorilla from Wasilla, McCain exposed every weakness, and every flaw of the Republican party.From not understanding the difference between a Palin and a Hillary to running the most disgustingly negative campaign in recent history, the Republican party was frantically putting lipstick on every pig they could find but forgot to take them out of the mud.We may not be as “smart” as Parker bemoans in today’s WAPO opinion, but we are still far from stupid. Politicians and op-ed writers love to tell us we are, but it wasn’t a stupid electorate that turned its back on the GOP.

  • spidermean2

    When will atheists learn? Where did these people come from? If they want an atheist president, they should just turn their sights to Moscow or North Korea or Cuba or to Pol Pot of Cambodia. If you trace the history of these said countries, the only reason atheists came to power is when they killed all opposition.Talking about stupidity, these atheists are full of it. On the other hand, it’s the evangelical Christians who established Separation of Church and State so all people of different religions can practice their faith.Now the idiots are accusing conservative evangelical Christians intolerant? It’s AMAZING, how stupidity behaves. These people really has no brains. No wonder they can’t see a Creator. It is as if no brains was created in them.

  • coloradodog

    One can simply see what kind of “Christian” spidermean is by how many times he call others ignorant and stupid.

  • chorpophone

    if you believe that a virgin gave birth to a god-child, who could walk on water or turn it into wine; if you believe that a book cobbled together in the dark ages, which contains fantastic stories about devils and magic, trumps science; if you believe that a desert trader ‘made a deal with god’ to become the father of ‘the chosen people’ (very convenient); if you believe that after dying, muhammed ascended into the air on a magic flying horse, etc. etc.

  • spidermean2

    chorpophone wrote “if you believe that a virgin gave birth to a god-child, who could walk on water or turn it into wine”.If you believe that your brain developed by itself then you have no right to vote at all.

  • spidermean2

    “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” (Psalms 53:1)Im not sure how it is a sin to call atheists as idiots when the Bible says that they are fools.If I call people stupid WITHOUT any reason, then maybe that is where the passage in Matthew applies. For how else can you tell a person that he is stupid unless you tell him that? How do you jolt somebody’s head to awaken him from trance and prevent him from running towards the fire?

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