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Weekend Reader: ‘The Age Of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years’

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Weekend Reader: ‘The Age Of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years’


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.

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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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  1. charleo1 August 16, 2014

    “Welcome to my House.” To which Obama rejoined, “This is my House too.” “This is God’s House.” Obama at once revealing his audacity of hope, yes. And too, his lack of experience with the Southern White’s unyielding racism, couched in Brownback’s comment. That ran as deeply in the hearts of the White Evangelicals, as anything they might claim to represent. As Dr. King once declared, “It’s appalling, that the most segregated hour of Christian America, is Sunday at 11:00 A.M.” As we now know, and to be fair, what a naive, optimistic Barack Obama, soon to be the first President of the United States of America, of any color, other than White, could not. Is that there would be no post racial era in America. That the Civil War’s ending was no more real in the South, than the lip service they grudgingly paid on occasion to MLK. And the White Evangelicals at Saddleback, and politicians like Sam Brownback, and other Republican Party leaders at their infamous behind closed doors meeting in Washington, the very day Barack Obama took office. Would make damn sure there wouldn’t be this great envisioned coming together. Even if they had to rip the whole damned Country apart to prevent it.

    1. midway54 August 17, 2014

      Well said.

  2. idamag August 16, 2014

    The so called “Christians” that make up the religious right, and they are neither, have done more to turn people away from church than any Atheist could. I grew up in an area where 85% were of one religion. They dictated the local government and the businesses. Many businesses were open every day of the year, including Christmas and Independence Day. On that religions holiday, everything closed. There was no Independence Day parade, but there was a huge parade commemorating their holiday. When I was in grade school, all the children, who belonged to that religion, were let out of school early on Wednesday to attend their church program. I was the only

    1. joe schmo August 17, 2014

      Not even close to true. If anything, it has pushed more people toward the church. Remember ‘atheists’ are a SMALL group. Not so sure I would want to go against God if I were you. Not a threat…..just a fact.

      ‘God’s Not Dead’ made 60 mil at the box office. Out did many Hollywood films:)


      1. dtgraham August 18, 2014

        It’s the hypocrisy of the religious right that turns people off joe. They’re the first ones to scream about the use of food stamps by the working poor, but also never want to raise the minimum wage. They’re fanatics on abortion, but also want to cut WIC, SNAP, childhood nutrition programs, food stamps, public education funding (Kansas), social assistance, and other benefits for low income women and children. They’re absolutely not in favour of universal health care for all regardless of income level, but still like to talk about their great religious faith. Republican Governors make it harder for poorer people in Democratic areas to vote in various ways, yet never miss an opportunity to wave a bible around. It does sour some people on Christianity.

        Incidentally, have you ever noticed that these near death experiences always seem to be culturally relevant? Devout Hindus and Sikhs report seeing Lord Krishna, the lights of Dhaliwal, and many of the Gurus. Tibetan Buddhists talk about the Bardots of existence as described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Not that it makes it any less real to the person experiencing it.

  3. idamag August 16, 2014

    National Memo is not kind to me today. I need to finish post on this one. I was the only one left sitting in the class. I felt the prejudice from the other kids. The separation of church and state has been a godsend to this community. If the religious right has their way, it will be like it used to be, here, all over.

    1. joe schmo August 17, 2014

      No one in the last three decades has bothered with your religion, buddy. Sorry, you have inflicted this one on yourselves……

  4. j.martindale August 16, 2014

    Authoritarianism, evangelicalism and dominionism are all variations of the same theme. Each begins with a premise of self-righteousness. They view all opponents are wrong and evil, and the idea of compromise is akin to appeasement. None of these entities has any place in public affairs. Public policy in our state cannot begin with a premise that the other side, the other party, our fellow Americans are evil and working to undercut all that is good about our nation. This approach allows no room for sensible compromise. We must begin our public policy debate by reasoning, not fiat. The Founding Fathers’ concept of separation of church and state was one of their most enlightened contributions to western political thought. Obama and others of his ilk have, rather than arguing for the reasonableness of separation of church and state, and the benefits to all, sold his soul for a few paltry votes.

    When people believe that their god has a side, and they know what side their god supports, the nation is subject to the powers of mindless superstition.

    1. Independent1 August 16, 2014

      Sorry, it isn’t Obama and his ilk that have sold their souls, it’s the party of the Devil, aka the GOP, that constantly promotes one anti-Christian ideology after another; trying to subvert the nation to their unGodly brand of Christianity.

      1. j.martindale August 17, 2014

        That goes without saying. Yes, the Republicans are owned by the Christianists. But rather than confront the issue and argue the merits of separation of church and state, the Democrats try to co-opt the evangelical pulpit. Rick Warren was the first transparent case of that with Obama.

        1. Independent1 August 17, 2014

          Somehow I don’t see the connection. One time, Obama asks Warren to participate in his inaugural event and some how that relates to Democrats trying to co-opt the evangelical pulpit?? There are Christian Democrats you know?? I’m not going to pass judgment on the Christians who support the Democrats because I’ve seen no evidence of Democrats trying to subvert our government by making outwardly ridiculous statements like “I’m running because God asked me run.” which many Republican candidates have said or clearly implied.

          And if Obama was trying to co-opt the Evangelical Church Rick Warren thinks he’s doing a terrible job; see this from back in 2012 in a Huffington Post article:

          Saddleback Church founder and author Rick Warren, who once praised President Barack Obama’s “courage” for inviting the conservative pastor to give the invocation at his inauguration and hailed his “commitment to model civility,” has drastically changed his tone on the man who helped make him a familiar name to many Americans.

          Obama is “absolutely” unfriendly to religion and his administration’s policies have “intentionally infringed upon religious liberties,” Warren said in an interview Wednesday. The evangelical pastor, whose 20,000-member church in suburban Los Angeles is one of the largest in the nation, was on tour in New York City to promote to the 10th anniversary edition of his popular book, “The Purpose Driven Life.”

    2. joe schmo August 17, 2014

      No one said God has a side. No one but you! It’s your choice, but leave the believers alone. Suppression of Christians will only make them push back harder……

  5. joe schmo August 17, 2014

    Welcome to the end of the world part 1. Obama is a Muslim! He’s no Christian. MLK started civil rights, Obama ended it. Only now it is judgement day. Payback time. He has no use for Evangelicals.

    Middle East problems which began by allowing millions of Muslims into Europe and America. The problems in Gaza. Militant Muslims from Australia now in the Middle East theatening to re-enter Australia. Our border WIDE open allowing for any old terrorist organization to enter that includes gangs. In Liberia, antagonists stormed the quarantined Ebola hospitals stealing sheets and mattresses soiled with blood, excrement and vomit from Ebola patients. How do you think that will end? The riots and LOOTING in Ferguson……and the list just keeps growing and growing. How are those liberal pacifying laws working for ya? Obama just jumps from one rabbit hole into another diverting attention away from his and the demoncrats corrupt actions.

    Liberals wake up, your record is stuck on skip. When will you wake up! When some militant stands in front of you with a gun in your face and you can’t fight back and I don’t mean ‘whitey.’

    Good ALWAYS over rules evil. God is a forgiving and loving God to a point. We do have PHYSICAL laws that have been around since Adam and Eve that we have to abide by and they never change. Not like the new decadent laws your side believes in. Oh, and….by the way….in case you don’t know….faith based films…like ‘God’s not Dead’ are outdoing Hollywood films…..

    Get off your white mantra…Who are the violent ones in society? Why don’t you look around… and it sure ‘ain’t whitey.’

  6. joe schmo August 17, 2014

    ….And the Left has no right to take Christianity away from the Evangelicals like they are doing in this day and age of decadence.


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