Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Why Does Obama Keep Invoking Faith?

According to a fascinating article in Politico today, President Barack Obama invokes the name of Jesus more than his predecessor, George W. Bush.

In his speech in Cairo, commencement address at Notre Dame, and even his defense of the stimulus package, he has made reference to the most important figure in Christianity. Bush, as president, only mentioned Jesus a handful of times over his two terms.

“I don’t recall a single example of Bush as president ever saying, ‘Jesus’ or ‘Christ,’” said Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Christian group Family Research Council. “This is different.”

Actually, it’s very different. For reasons we’ll see later, Obama is specifically mentioning “Jesus” and “Christ” rather than “God” as Bush would. Additionally, he has been much more careful about how he speaks about faith - while Governor of Texas, Bush once famously said “I believe that God wants me to be president.”

Beyond the speeches, Obama has actually given faith a central role in his administration.

…inside his White House, Obama has placed his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships — run by a 26-year old Pentecostal minister named Josh DuBois — under the White House’s Domestic Policy Council. That was widely seen as an effort to involve a religious perspective in the administration’s policy decisions.

Also, religious leaders meet with White House policymakers on a regular basis — and help to shape decisions on matters large and small. A White House speechwriter working on Obama’s Egypt speech called several faith leaders to get their thoughts. After the White House unveiled its budget in April, officials convened a two-hour conference call with religious leaders to discuss how the spending plan would help the poor.

Additionally, the front-runner for Obama’s nomination to head the National Institutes of Health is Frances Collins - the former Director of the Human Genome Project and a born-again Christian.

But as the article points out, it’s ironic that Obama is placing such an emphasis on faith since his success has largely come on the back of younger, more secular voters.

Yet he’s also been careful to mention non-believers in many of his speeches - including his Inaugural Address - which has typically been uncommon of a president. And despite their growing concern about Obama’s invocation of faith, non-believers are still supporting him.

“The one important thing to recognize,” says athiest author Sam Harris, “is [Obama] is so much better than the last guy in the Oval Office, and everyone is feeling so much relief for the change he has brought, that they are inclined not to gripe too much about all the delusional stuff he may be paying lip service to or holding over from the previous administration.”

The atheist support for Obama is actually significantly more visible than the religious support for the GOP. Before the 2008 Election, Obama led Republican nominee John McCain by 25% among non-religious voters - compare that to just a 5% lead McCain had over Obama among religious voters.

In fact, Obama made some significant improvements among religious voters for a Democrat. He received a 5% boost from born-again Christians relative to John Kerry’s performance among these voters.

Of course, it is still fairly low. The exit polls we observed last year found that McCain led Obama by a staggering 33% of voters who said they were looking for a candidate who “shares my values” - about 30% of the electorate.

If it’s so hard for Obama to win over religious voters, why does he still talk about religion so much?

There actually may be some very clever political strategy behind Obama’s efforts to include the Christian community.

For Obama, Christian rhetoric offers an opportunity to connect with a broader base of supporters in a nation in which 83 percent of Americans believe in God. What’s more, regularly invoking Jesus helps Obama minimize the number of American who believe he is a Muslim — a linkage that can be politically damaging. According to a Pew Research Center study, 11 percent of Americans believe, incorrectly, that Obama is a Muslim; it’s a number that is virtually unchanged from the 2008 presidential campaign…

…For Bush, invoking Jesus publicly was fraught with political risk. He was so closely politically identified with the Christian right that overt talk of Christ from the White House risked alienating mainstream and secular voters. Bush instead quoted passages from scripture or Christian hymns, as he did in his 2003 State of the Union Address when he used the phrase “wonder-working power.” That sort of oblique reference resonated deeply with evangelical Christians but sailed largely unnoticed past secular voters.

Beyond this, there may be a long-term strategy at work.

A Pew survey released May 21 found that even as Americans remain highly religious, there has there been a slow decline in the number of Americans with socially conservative values – especially among young voters. That creates an opening for Obama, especially at a time when some conservative evangelicals are telling pollsters they are frustrated and disillusioned with politics.

“In the long term, this could be huge,” said Stephen Schneck, director of the Life Cycle Institute at The Catholic University of America, who is active in left-leaning political efforts. “There are swing Catholics and swing Protestants even within the evangelicals. To the extent Obama can mobilize those people as part of a new Democratic coalition, that marginalizes Republicans even further.”

Many evangelicals that have become disillusioned with politics are those who saw little change in actual social policy during Bush’s presidency, and are beginning to realize how impractical it is to win those arguments. The young evangelicals of the Millennial generation, in particular, are more supportive of Obama than their older religious counterparts for specifically this reason.

From a November article in the Daily Telegraph:

To [Rick Warren’s] followers, concerns like climate change, genocide in Darfur and torture have risen up the agenda.

"For 30 years abortion and homosexuality have been the mega-issues, but if you shrink the significance of those to be more or less equal with others then that will contribute to a shift in the vote," said David Gushee, professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Georgia.

He said Mr Obama broadened his appeal by talking seriously about reducing abortion through better welfare, sex education, birth control and health care. The campaign also contacted ministers, sent them copy of Mr Obama's speeches on faith and arranged meetings with the candidate. It visited a dozen Christian colleges, often holding meeting with Donald Miller, a popular evangelical author. [NOTE: Since this was written, Obama has actually given Miller a voluntary position in the administration].

Prof Gushee added that "young evangelicals were seeking different policies and rejecting George Bush," for sanctioning torture by the US, for playing down global warming and starting a pre-emptive war.

If Mr Obama manages to reduce abortions, he would probably expand his evangelical support and hold on to young voters gained this time.

So it appears that Obama is pursuing a long-term goal of building a new Democratic coalition - one that further erodes the GOP - as well as a way to convince voters he is not a Muslim (a plurality of Americans have an unfavorable view of Islam) without any serious political consequences.

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