The dramatic influence the Christian right exerts over the Republican Party has been well documented — but Democrats rely on religious voters as well. In his new book, The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years, Steven P. Miller explores the bipartisan political impact of the evangelical movement over the past four decades. Miller, a professor at Webster University and Washington University, explains how evangelicals have at times dominated American politics, culminating with the religious right’s political rise and fall during the George W. Bush administration.
In the excerpt below, Miller examines how then-Senator Barack Obama used conservative Christians’ waning influence to promote a more progressive brand of faith-based politics during his 2008 campaign. You can purchase the book here.
Postmortems for the Christian Right abounded well before George W. Bush left office with a Gallup approval rating of around 34 percent. In its pioneering poll of 1976, Gallup had calculated the number of born-again Christians as a similar percentage of the American populace. That number had risen slightly by 2011, when George Gallup Jr. passed away. Many other pollsters since had followed the lead of the original evangelical number cruncher. The resulting statistics showed a striking, seemingly countervailing trend: The number of persons without a stated religious affiliation grew sharply in those same decades. In a landmark 2010 study, two leading social scientists cited a connection between “the rise of the nones” and “the visibility of the Religious Right in the public media.” The two trend lines were likely to cross, and the long denouement of the Bush administration pushed evangelical watchers to take stock. “The era of the religious Right is over,” announced journalist E. J. Dionne in 2008. To progressive evangelicals, “a seismic shift” was under way, one that would soon reveal just how exceptional a moment the Christian Right’s rise and fall had been. Evangelicalism had a center, and it—not the aging lions of the Christian Right—would hold. The new commentary reflected the extent to which evangelicalism had become the public face of Christianity itself. Newsweek editor Jon Meacham announced “the end of Christian America,” a demographic shift that the hyperevangelical Bush years had done much to conceal.
The rapid ascension of Barack Obama only seemed to bolster these arguments. Obama and his fellow Democrats ultimately benefited from the excesses of the Christian Right and a Republican Party that seemed bound to do its bidding. Still, no Democratic candidate with national ambitions could dream of running in 2008 as an atheist or even as an agnostic. Obama was unusually well positioned to promote a progressive brand of faith-based politics. The prominence of the evangelical left during the Obama campaign altered the terms of evangelical influence on American politics, setting the stage for an overall decline in sway.
Obama was not an evangelical in the sense that most Americans understood the term. The rising politician’s religious background was no less variegated than his racial and ethnic identity. His Kansan mother came from a nominally Christian background. She was, in his words, “an agonistic,” a seeker appreciative of all faiths. His absentee Kenyan father was raised as a Muslim but became “a confirmed atheist.” When, as a young adult, Obama negotiated the burdens and opportunities of his own identity, he took comfort in a black church tradition that to him symbolized the triumph of the Civil Rights Movement. He occasionally visited Harlem’s famous Abyssinian Baptist Church while an undergraduate at Columbia University during the early 1980s. Obama became, as he later described himself, “a Christian by choice.” While working as a community organizer in Chicago, he started attending Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ. Trinity was a mostly black congregation affiliated with a liberal, largely white denomination. Obama joined the church as a baptized convert. In his best-selling autobiography, Dreams from My Father, the discovery of Trinity forms the emotional climax of the section on his adopted city of Chicago. Trinity stood at the fault line of the liberal and black Protestant communities, two core Democratic constituencies. So did Obama. As a mature politician, he would move gracefully (but not unconsciously) between the measured tone associated with the former and the uplifting cadence associated with the latter.
Obama’s national coming out came in 2004, when, as a Senate candidate, he delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. His personal story was his deepest asset; it was the American Dream, writ progressive. But he spoke as someone who was as comfortable with his religious faith as he was with his political liberalism. “We worship an awesome God in the Blue States,” Obama stated in an oft-quoted closing passage, “and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States.” He spoke of the “audacity of hope,” a phrase he borrowed from a Jeremiah Wright sermon and one that soon became Obama’s own trademark. Yet in other ways his liberal vision represented an effort to make hope more reasonable. Religious and secular folks should be able to get along, Obama averred. In an overwhelmingly religious nation, he knew, secularists would have to bear the burden first. “Over the long haul,” Obama told a television news network in 2006, “I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people, and join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy. . . . Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public sphere.”
Candidate Obama was not about to concede religious voters to the Republicans. Moreover, faith-based appeals were a way of demonstrating his desire to transcend partisanship. Joshua DuBois, a black Pentecostal pastor, headed religious outreach during the campaign. The Obama campaign titled a late 2007 tour of the important primary state of South Carolina “40 Days of Faith and Family,” a narrowcasted riff on the structure of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life. Obama’s language of hope had religious connotations that resonated with progressive Christians. “Hope” was a favorite word of Brian McLaren.
Obama saw progressive and moderate evangelicals as important symbolic allies. His ties to Jim Wallis dated back to the late 1990s, when Obama was a young, ambitious state senator. The two shared a frustration with the polarized discourse of left and right, remembered Wallis, whom Obama thanked in the acknowledgments of his 2006 campaign book, The Audacity of Hope. As that book revealed, Obama had internalized the decades-old narrative of mainline Protestant slippage and evangelical ascent. Obama’s speech at the Call to Renewal conference was a crucial moment in his outreach to progressive evangelicals and, through them, to the broader religious left. Wallis called it “perhaps the most important speech on the subject of religion and public life” since John F. Kennedy addressed skeptical Southern Baptist leaders in 1960. Obama echoed themes he would soon highlight in the faith chapter of The Audacity of Hope. Tellingly, Obama had asked Rick Warren to review the section. The likely presidential candidate knew well Warren’s symbolic significance. Later in 2006, the Illinois senator appeared at Warren’s World AIDS Day summit. Also on stage was his Senate colleague, Sam Brownback, a strong political conservative and recent evangelical convert to Catholicism. The two had shared an audience before—at a gathering of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—as Brownback noted to the Saddleback crowd. He then turned to Obama and quipped, “Welcome to my house.” The Kansan offered the awkward line as a good-natured joke, and the crowd responded in kind. Obama played along, as well, while seizing the moment to make a point. “There is one thing I’ve got to say, Sam: This is my house, too. This is God’s house,” he retorted, to another round of laughter.
To be sure, the desire for a rapprochement with values voters was not unique to Obama. Heading toward 2008, all three Democratic front-runners (Obama, Hillary Clinton, and former North Carolina senator John Edwards) spoke regularly about their religiosity. In 2007, Sojourners hosted and CNN broadcasted a forum with the Democratic contenders. Edwards, Clinton, and Obama discussed their faith with ease, employing autobiographical flourishes to steer around the divisive issues associated with the culture wars. Obama was the only candidate who made a specific reference to evangelicalism, citing its belief in “second chances” as “an area where I think we can get past the left and right divide.” He also took advantage of his ties to Jim Wallis to wish the host a happy birthday.
If you enjoyed this excerpt, purchase the full book here.
Excerpted The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years, by Steven P. Miller, with permission from Oxford University Press USA. Copyright © Oxford University Press 2014.
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