Obama’s Faltering Religious Outreach Revs Up

Deal W. Hudson
September 22, 2008

This week the Obama campaign attempts to restart its religious outreach with a month-long tour of its religious surrogates, titled “Barack Obama: Faith, Family, and Values.” The stars of the tour will be Catholic law professor Doug Kmiec, ex-Congressman Tim Roemer (also a Catholic), Methodist theologian Shaun Casey, and Evangelical author Donald Miller.

Obama’s religious outreach program has been on the rocks, not yet producing its expected results. Support for Obama among both Evangelical and Catholic voters has dwindled: 57.2 percent favor McCain, versus 19.9 percent for Obama. These numbers indicate that religious voters are supporting the GOP nominee at the same level as in 2004.

That’s bad news for the Obama campaign.

Restoring a relationship between the Democratic Party and the religiously active voters has been a priority for Obama and his party. TIME magazine’s Amy Sullivan told a group of religion reporters on Thursday that the campaign had decided to cut the funding level of religious outreach. This is a subject of particular concern to Sullivan, who recently published The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap, which we reviewed favorably here.

Sullivan’s remark brought a quick denial from the head of Obama’s religious outreach director, Joshua DuBois. “That is just absolutely not true. It is actually 180 degrees the other way,” he said.

Sorry, but I don’t buy it. Sullivan going on record to express what must have been a great disappointment to her is significant. Remember, she believed that Obama’s effort to close the “God Gap” was the key to the Democrats’ taking back the White House in November.

Now the Obama campaign has lowered its sights to attracting “moderates” among religious voting groups, such as the 500,000 Methodists in Ohio. But don’t the Obama strategists realize that very few moderates vote for religious reasons? The active religious voters come from the Right or the Left (and there aren’t really that many on the Left).

The McCain campaign flirted with a similar strategy but abandoned it. They got successfully back on track beginning with a July 29 visit to the Rev. Billy Graham at his home in Montreat, North Carolina.

Lynchburg, Virginia – the hometown of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell – got a taste of the Obama faith tour last Tuesday. Campaign surrogate Shaun Casey held a meeting for Evangelical voters at the Starlite Café on 5th Street. “His administration will model the kind of pluralism that we long for today,” Casey told the 15 people who showed up.

Unfortunately for Casey – and his boss – pluralism is hardly a message that ignites the passions of religious voters. Rather, it’s often used as a code word for being against what religious conservatives are for: protecting the unborn and marriage between a man and a woman.

And that’s the problem with the entire effort: Obama’s faith tour will not be able to get out from under the shadow of what it stands against. From the very beginning, the Obama campaign’s religious outreach struggled to define another kind of agenda that would appeal to religious voters. By all appearances, it failed.

There are many reasons for the downward trend of Obama’s appeal to religious voters, but Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, cuts to the heart of the problem:

People of faith will judge the candidates on the basis of their voting record – not on some grandstanding tour. The problem for Obama is his support for selective infanticide and pledges to make abortion-on-demand a right so secure that no state could ever rule against it. No “Faith Tour” can override that reality.

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