Friday, June 20, 2008

Obama and Evangelicals

Phil speculated about Obama having some appeal to evangelicals; he's not the only one. I've long been skeptical of this. While I didn't see any exit poll data about evangelical voting in the Democratic primaries, Obama pretty consistently performed more weakly among religiously observant whites. He also tended to run poorly among other groups that could be surrogates for evangelicals -- blue-collar whites, rural voters, white Southerners, Appalachians, moderate-to-conservative Democrats -- especially later in the season, after the appearance of Jeremiah Wright.

In so many ways, Obama is a poor fit for evangelical culture. He spent much of his life as an agnostic, and now is aligned with the most liberal forces in mainline Protestantism. He is a cosmopolitan "world man" who does little to hide his Ivy League pedigree or big-city lifestyle, while evangelicals have long been suspicious of globalism, urbanity, and elite education. For all his attempts at nuance, his views on abortion, gay rights, and other cultural issues important to evangelicals are as liberal as any presidential nominee in history. Obama has been accused of being uncomfortable with tub-thumping patriotism; evangelicals are among the most fervent of flag-wavers. Evangelicals tend to see the GWOT as a primordial battle between Good and Evil (or Christianity and Islam); Obama has given them little to make them believe he shares their views. As his first general-election ad shows, Obama is aware that many Middle Americans still find him a bit exotic and "un-American." Evangelicals would seem to be especially likely to find him hard to relate to.

It is certainly true that the Obama campaign is reaching out to the evangelical community. There are certainly many more moderate evangelicals of the Rick Warren variety (John C. Green calls them them "freestyle" evangelicals -- they are more commonly found in suburban megachurches than in country chapels) who have somewhat more tolerant views than their conservative brethren. Younger evangelicals may be more open to supporting Obama -- but that's not surprising, given the general Democratic tilt of younger voters. But even these groups are still pretty socially conservative.

Now polling data backs up my suspicions. A recent Washington Post-ABC poll shows McCain winning 68 percent of white evangelicals -- a figure comparable to George W. Bush's performance at this point in 2004. A Pew poll last month showed McCain winning 71 percent of white evangelicals. (Obama captured almost the same percentage of the unaffiliated -- signs that the "culture war" remains important at the ballot box). Similarly, a Gallup poll shows McCain with a wide advantage among more religious whites.

With same-sex marriage back in the news, it's worth noting that while other groups have grown more favorable to the idea, evangelicals remain near-unanimous in their opposition.

It's true that John McCain has had trouble arousing evangelical fervor (although that may be because of a broader GOP torpor). But his most likely VP pick, Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, is a prominent evangelical himself (of the non-threatening megachurch variety). In fact, his pastor is president of the National Association of Evangelicals.


riffle said...

Of course in many ways, McCain is a poor fit for evangelical culture.

+McCain left his first wife after she had a disfiguring accident.
+McCain started chasing his second wife while still married to his first.
+McCain married an heiress, so one can suspect money was part of what he wanted from his second marriage.
+McCain admits to repeated marital infidelity.
+McCain, from what I've seen, shows little familiarity with Christian theology.
+McCain's second wife, Cindy, set up a charity that provided her with narcotics illegally. A worker in her charity discovered her narcotic theft: he was fired.

All that is true: just as true as what you wrote about Obama.

I'm not sure why any Evangelical, casting an eye upon McCain's biography, would find it more compelling than Obama's, on just religious terms.

Shall we get into McCain's dubious post Vietnam military history, as well? Was he an admiral, like his father and grandfather?

If any evangelical looks at the real life story of McCain, they will have many items that make J. Wright look not quite so bad overall.

If you want to argue from merely statistical bases, please do so. I see a lot of editorializing in your post (as there likely is in mine).

McCain is probably Godless, from what I've seen. Obama definitely isn't. Cindy M. liked the narcotics, but Michelle doesn't.

It's not as lopsided as you make it out to be.

Chris D. said...

I dunno, riffle. I've worked down-ballot Democratic campaigns in highly evangelical country. The best you can do is suppress their enthusiasm for the Republican. They put on a good face that they put values ahead of party loyalty, but--at the end of the day--they're mostly Republicans. However, if Obama (or the Democrats) were to push McCain's not-so-evangelical background, they could probably reduce the amount of money and votes he gets from this demographic by 20% or so. These folks are fatalistic (all that "End Times" talk), so a certain percentage of them love to throw their arms up in romantic defeat over these worldly sinner politicians. A little bit of Jesus-talk from Obama might win a few of their votes.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Chris D.

First of all, I think it's a sincere effort on Sen. Obama's part, i.e. I believe he actually does want to get more of the country united and working together again.

But as for his timing, i.e. reaching out during the campaign instead of waiting for his Presidency, it's more about undercutting McCain's support than adding lots of new Obama votes.

Either way, it's a net gain for Obama, consistent with his vision of the future, and worth some time and effort.