A recent meeting of left-wing religious and political leaders produced an air of premature victory over those who would describe themselves as the traditional Christian right. The meeting was sponsored by the Center for American Progress, a left-wing think tank that boasts in its' about us section that they hope to "expose the hollowness of conservative governing philosophy" and uniquely and effectively "engage in the war of ideas with conservatives." CAP was founded and is led by John D. Podesta, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and professor at the Georgetown University Center of Law.
Christian Post reporter Michelle Vu quoted Brookings Institute fellow and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. saying he was "surprised by the extent in which Sen. Barack Obama has been tormented by religious questions given the amount of effort he spent to think through and explain his faith in the public square." Dionne should not have been surprised that evangelicals would question Obama considering the comments he made on June 24, 2007, at the United Church of Christ in Harford, Connecticut. According to Manya Brachear of the Chicago Tribune, Obama told the crowd, "faith got hijacked by the so-called leaders of the Christian right, who've been all too eager to exploit what divides us." And what issues, according to Obama, divides us? Issues like "abortion and gay marriage, school prayer and intelligent design." What does Obama think should unite us? Issues like "raising the minimum wage, adopting universal health care, stopping genocide in Darfur, Sudan, ending the Iraq war and embracing immigration reform."
In other words conservative evangelical issues like the definition of marriage, the sanctity of life, prayer, and answering the ultimate metaphysical question of our cosmological origins are divisive and should be abandoned. But liberal (or progressive) evangelical issues such as better pay, universal health care, and genocide outside the womb are issues that unite and should be embraced by everyone.
In early March of this year, Obama told a town hall meeting in Nelsonville, Ohio, that he was tired of questions about his religion. He also told audience members that "they would feel right at home at his church in Chicago." That was just two weeks before the infamous video of Jeremiah Wright, Obama's pastor and mentor for 20 years, hit the public airwaves. Obama took a break from campaigning in Ohio to speak at a fundraising dinner in San Francisco where he derided Ohio voters for being bitter and "clinging to" guns, religion, and anti-immigration and anti-trade sentiments. All of these episodes from the campaign trail mean Obama should continue to expect "religious questions" that ask him to explain his faith.
Dionne, who is Catholic, went on to say "in the Republican Party, you are seeing what we thought of as the old religious right weakening very substantially" and pointed to McCain's victory in the Republican primary even though the Christian right supported Huckabee as the primary evidence. What Dionne obviously doesn't understand is the dynamic of the 2008 Republican primary. McCain's victory was not a rejection of the Christian right but an affirmation of the old adage, "divide and conquer." If Fred Thompson had dropped out of the race before South Carolina instead of making South Carolina his last stand, Huckabee would have won the state by ten points instead of losing by three points. A divided Christian right opened the door for maverick McCain to gain the nomination as Romney, Huckabee, and Thompson cancelled each other out. If the Christian right can unite before the Republican Convention they will still be a formidable force in the 2008 general election.
It is no wonder Democratic candidates are talking more about faith this year. Both of the Democratic front runners have paid consultants who are helping them to couch their liberal policies in religious language. Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners is successfully driving a wedge in the evangelical community by helping to elevate poverty over abortion and the environment over homosexual marriage. In his book, Onward Christian Soldiers, Deal Hudson, former Chairman of Catholic Outreach at the Republican National Committee, says that left leaning evangelicals "want to convince religious voters that their broader social program is as spiritually and morally equivalent in importance as the fight against abortion and related life issues such as fetal stem-cell research." Hudson calls this the "equivalence argument" which left leaning Catholics have long used to explain how they can be both Catholic and pro-abortion. The strategy is to "create a large number of positions on a range of issues from health care to poverty and global warming, and assign each a single point." Using this system prior to the presidential election of 2004, John Kerry was declared to be "the most Catholic Senator" in the Senate.
There is no doubt the political playing field has changed since 2004. Left leaning evangelicals are determined to counter the influence of conservative evangelical voters who, according to exit polls, contributed greatly to President Bush's re-election. All they have to do is siphon off between five and ten percent of these voters and a close election will see the country move to the left. If the general election were held today, I would have to say this strategy would succeed. However, it's a long way to November. Once the democratic primary finally grinds to its inevitable conclusion, conservative evangelicals will begin to focus on what the democrat nominee really believs. That focus may bring clarity to Christian conservatives and ignite the flame of resolve that will lead to the re-energizing of their involvement in the public arena.
Dr. Tony Beam is Vice-President for Student Services and Director of the Christian Worldview Center at North Greenville University in Tigerville, South Carolina.