Obama and the religious factor in American politics

It would be entirely wrong to assume that Barak Obama’s victory in the American presidential race indicated a decline in the religious factor in American politics. The Democratic party have had to learn, again and again, that to ignore the strongly religious component in their country’s culture is to court electoral defeat. The practical problem they face, however, is that the religious Right have managed to capture their political constituency by a simple message of “pro-life or not”. Whilst this is an easy enough message to understand, my conversations with many American evangelicals suggest that for many of them, this is the win-or-lose question into which the whole of their understanding of politics has been poured. As a result, the resurgent evangelicalism among the Baby Boomers has served to boost the fortunes of the Republican Right – all a candidate needs to do is be reassuring on the Big Question, and the evangelical vote can almost certainly be counted upon. This was exemplified by the interview which Rick Warren, pastor of the megachurch Saddleback in Lake Forest CA, conducted with the two candidates back in the summer.  You can see the responses to the question “at what point does an unborn baby get human rights in your view” by both Barak Obama and John McCain here. Barak Obama starts out by saying that answering the question from “a theological or a scientific point of view” is “above my pay grade”. He then clearly says that his is “pro-choice” but also would like to see both a limiting of late-term abortions (if the health of the mother is not under threat) and also at ways in which the number of abortions could be reduced. John McCain comes straight back with “at the moment of conception” without any hesitation. The church congregation cheer. The right answer has been given to the Big Question.

Yet today we have a new President Obama who has been elected by a majority of about 2:1 of electoral college votes, and McCain failed to achieve nearly all of his electoral targets, whilst Obama did better than anyone would have believed back in August. What is going on? Well the economy and the quality of his campaign probably won the election for Obama, and a variety of factors lost it for McCain, including the economy, the quality of his campaign and the choice of Sarah Palin. Palin is another interesting factor in the basic religious question, since she was in the ticket to reassure the disappointed Right enough to get them out to vote for a non-Evangelical Republican candidate. The problem was that she clearly had neither the experience nor the intellect for the job, and this quickly became clear to most thinking Republicans and swing-voters. Her evangelical credentials were impeccable however, even if a little tarnished by Troopergate.

This returns us to the initial question of the religious component in this election. Which way, if any, did it go? Beliefnet seems to be pointing to a likely set of circumstances: namely, that Obama managed to forge a faith coalition of his own. This comprised the non-Evangelical mainstream denominations, who were worried about a wider range of ethical concerns than solely abortion – it is important, but not the Big Question; the fact that Obama, in ways more apparent than McCain, has a clear, active and thought-through Christian faith, founded on an Evangelical conversion with a strongly experiential component; and perhaps most significantly, what is called “The Rise of the Religious Left”. This includes elements within the broader-Church Evangelical constituency which we could identify as “Emerging”. Then lastly, of course, he could rely on votes from the Black Church constituency, which too often has been either divided or unregistered. There are echoes of a Martin Luther King effect here: mobilising black evangelical churches politically is quite an achievement, and perhaps it takes a black candidate or cause to do so.

Both from the perspective of politics and the religious landscape of America, it seems as though we have witnessed a change of historical era. Unlike the last Democratic presidential triumph (Clinton, 1992), here it seems as though permanent changes in American religion itself have participated in the process which allowed a non-white American citizen to enter the White House as President. Although this unique set of circumstances will probably never recur, the religious politics of America are on the change.

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One reply on “Obama and the religious factor in American politics”

  1. Through the summer I was astonished that McCain was doing even or slightly ahead in an election where no Republican should do well. Once the economic disaster hit in September, I said that the election was over. McCain was now tied to the party of Wall Street and Big Business at a time where both seemed to have failed. The result was pretty well locked in at that point.

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