Barack Obama’s Problematic Religious Outreach

Deal W. Hudson
March 17, 2008

In her recent book The Party Faithful: How and Why the Democrats are Closing the God Gap, Amy Sullivan, the nation editor at Time, recalls the moment when Barack Obama “made himself a household name.”

The scene was the second night of the 2004 Democratic Convention. Senator Obama’s address to the convention “displayed a gift for seamlessly weaving religious references into his language, a skill that rivaled both Clinton’s and Bush’s.”

Sullivan recalls that most of the delegates wouldn’t have identified his use of a phrase from a popular Evangelical song by Rich Mullins – “but they did recognize an audacious move to wrest religion away from the Republican Party and roared their approval” (emphasis added).

Sullivan does not conceal her admiration for Obama. She writes, “The chapter he wrote on faith for his book The Audacity of Hope is one of the most revealing and thoughtful explorations of religion and politics by an office holding politician.”

When Barack Obama announced his entry into the presidential race on February 17, 2007, Sullivan wasn’t the only Democrat who thought he represented the party’s best choice to close the so-called “God Gap” with the GOP.

Since the very beginning, the Obama campaign has had an Evangelical feel, as I have reported before. Those who witnessed Obama’s keynote address at the 2006 Sojourners Conference realized his 2004 convention speech was no fluke. Sullivan recognized the significance of Obama’s ability to convince people of the desirability of religion’s influence on politics:

It was, for the first time in modern memory, an affirmative statement from a Democrat about “how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy,” as Obama put it. John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Mario Cuomo in 1984 each gave seminal speeches on faith and Democratic politics, but they were primarily concerned with defining their own faith – Catholicism – in terms of what it was not.

Any Republican who dismisses Obama’s ability to reach religiously inclined voters would do well to read the passage above and take its implications seriously. If Obama finally clinches the nomination, the key to his success or failure will be his campaign’s religious outreach.

Obama’s point man for this outreach is also an African-American, Joshua DuBois. The stepson of an African Methodist Episcopalian minister, DuBois is a member of a Pentecostal Assemblies of God church. He is described as “guarded in discussing his personal positions,” not wishing to offer his view of abortion during an interview with WORLD magazine.

Instead of taking specific positions, DuBois stresses his conversion to Christianity in college and speaks about it in the traditional language of an Evangelical: “I am saved by the grace of God. I’m a strong believer in Jesus Christ.”

DuBois’s approach to messaging Obama’s religion is likewise general, but intensely personal. In comments to the Christian Science Monitor, he explains that Obama’s politics are “an outgrowth of his reading of some of the seminal parts of the Bible about doing unto the ‘least of these’ just as we would have done unto Christ.”

It is fair to say that, as a candidate of the Religious Left, Obama invokes care for the poor just as predictably as a Religious Right candidate invokes the protection of the unborn.

Thus far, Obama has been slow to gain support among Catholics; he has consistently been beaten by Hillary Clinton among Catholics in the primary. An article on Politico outlining his problem with Catholic voters was met with immediate, and hostile, disagreement from the Obama campaign. (Click here for my own story on Obama’s poor record, thus far, with Catholic voters.)

DuBois shrugged off the problem, promising that the campaign would be aggressively reaching out to Catholics. Former Indiana Congressman Tim Roemer, a Catholic, who has emerged as the most visible surrogate for Obama among religious voters, also dismissed any “Catholic problem.” “The more Catholics see him and learn his positions on social justice and dignity of life issues, the more they like him,” said Roemer.

While Obama’s appeal to religious voters is real, the obstacles facing him, especially with Catholics, are real as well. It will not help Obama with Catholics if he surrounds himself with surrogates like Sen. Ted Kennedy and his wife. (Mrs. Kennedy recently endorsed Obama and accompanied Roemer at a campaign stop in Ohio to meet with Catholic voters.)

The Kennedy factor will only serve to remind Catholics that Obama, while he speaks inspiringly about faith, is another pro-abortion Democrat – a fact that Obama himself, surprisingly, continues to underscore. When he was asked in a televised presidential debate to name a mistake he had made while in the Senate, he said he erred on voting to allow Teri Schiavo’s parents to have a legal hearing on their daughter’s medical condition. “I think I should have stayed in the Senate and fought more for making sure that families make those decisions, and not bureaucrats and politicians.”

Roemer, who has a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame, makes a better surrogate for Obama: He walked away from a tough battle for the chair of the Democratic National Committee after being criticized for his anti-abortion view by pro-abortion leaders. At the time, Roemer argued that the Democratic Party should welcome anti-abortion politicians the way the GOP welcomes pro-abortion pols like Rudy Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger.” Republicans have a big tent; why can’t we?” he asked.

The size of Obama’s tent was already tested with the expulsion of his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., from the campaign. Once Wright’s anti-Semitic, anti-America rants were given a full airing in the national news, it was inevitable he would be banished. But the fact that Obama attended the church of such a spiritual leader for so many years puts a big question mark over his religious outreach – not good news for a campaign whose major strength was using religious rhetoric to stir people into a quasi-religious fervor.

DuBois has his work cut out for him. For Obama to fulfill Sullivan’s dream of leading the party back into a relationship with people of faith, he will need more of the Roemers and less of the Kennedys. Obama will need to keep the Reverend Wright episode behind him by continuing his specific renunciations of his pastor’s offensive comments and attitudes.

But, at the end of the day, Obama’s appeal to religious voters, especially Catholics, will be limited by the content of his own convictions. Voters who earnestly practice their religion are primarily concerned about the hostility of government and culture to their families. No matter how inspired the call to relieve poverty, it will not trump the ongoing concern of religious voters about raising their children and grandchildren.

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