Ever wonder why Barack Obama agreed to go before an evangelical audience that was certain to be more hostile to him than to his opponent?
Maybe because he is a Christian who thought he could actually talk to other Christians.
Nah. That couldn't be it.
Bragging about being in the Jesus Club while giving Republican answers is far more important than being a true Christian. Ronald Reagan, still the Religious Right's most beloved president, proved that conclusively.
So what was Obama doing at Saddleback Church?
He was probing for weakness. That crowd looked like a Religious Right crowd, clapped like one, but according to the best evangelical pollster in the country, true Bible-believing evangelicals -- the kind the Religions Right depends on -- are outnumbered four to one by people who call themselves evangelicals but don't believe even the most basic tenets of traditional faith. That means that if Saddleback's audience was like the evangelicals most pollsters survey, true Religious Right evangelicals were outnumbered four to one.
Evangelical pollster George Barna, whom I'd be willing to bet won't be voting for Obama this November, is one of the few pollsters who understands evangelical faith well enough to measure attitudes and behavior in a way that has any real meaning. Instead of allowing people to self-identify as evangelicals, he asks questions about their beliefs.
Those who say they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also say they believe they will go to Heaven because they have confessed their sins and have accepted Jesus Christ as their savior are classified as born-agains.
To be classified as evangelicals, born-agains must meet seven other conditions
1. their faith is very important in their life today
2. they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians;
3. they believe Satan exists
4. they believe eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works
5. they believe that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth
6. they assert that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches.
7. the describe God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today.
These nine questions are softballs for anyone familiar with the fundamentals of evangelical faith. On my faith days, I could meet those criteria. I'm not an evangelical, do not go to church and disagree with the Religious Right on something new almost every day of the week.
These questions don't include the bodily resurrection of Jesus, his virgin birth, his death as atonement for original and personal sin, the historical accuracy of the Bible, creationism, the existence of hell, or even the big sticking point -- that Jesus is the only way of salvation.
And here's the astonishing part: Barna looked all over the United States and couldn't find a city anywhere in which one out of four adults were evangelicals under that 9-point definition. Little Rock, Arkansas, came the closest.
His nine qualifications quickly rule out people who got saved 30 years ago and can't remember why, people whose mama used to go to church and so they claim it, and people who like the idea of being evangelical but haven't the faintest notion what it truly means. Barna's definition leaves in many progressive evangelicals, a lot of traditional Baptists and other evangelicals who will never toe the Religious Right line, but it's as good a measure of Religious Right strength as we're ever going to get. And it corresponds roughly with the 20 percent of self-identified evangelicals who say they are part of the Religious Right.
Barna's definition identifies only 8 percent of Americans as actual evangelicals. That 8 percent is still with McCain, and always will be. But notice this: even within that group support for McCain has dropped from 78 percent in June to 61 percent now. All other 19 faith groups Barna surveyed give Obama the lead by substantial margins.
And here's the big news:
For the first time in two decades, the born-again vote (a vote that less savvy pollsters lump together with the evangelical vote) is moving toward Democrats instead of Republicans. These Americans give Obama a 12-point lead, 43 percent to 31 percent. The born-again vote is the lion's share of the self-identified evangelical vote -- the big vote that everyone seems to be fighting over. That was the vote Obama was going after last Saturday.
It makes up 17 percent of the 25 percent of white Americans who self identify as evangelicals if you use the most common figure pollsters turn up. If you use Barna's studies, which show 40 percent of Americans self identifying as evangelicals, Obama is the favorite among 32 percent of Americans who consider themselves evangelicals.
There's a lot of churn in that vote right now, which is unusual in itself. That 17-32 percent of Americans who call themselves evangelicals but don't pass Barna's tests are mostly white Southerners and sometimes Midwesterners, cultural conservatives who've gone for Republican presidential candidates since Nixon wooed and won them in the 1970s. Many of them would be more accurately categorized as "the country music voters." They love God, mom, whiskey, guns and the flag -- not always in that order. Some of them even go to church. A lot fewer than you might imagine.
This is a shifting, squishy vote that likes Obama, but could like him more.
Anyone only reading the newspapers and listening to television will believe that Obama lost out Saturday. But delve deeper into that 25-40 percent of America, and you'll find born-agains, progressive evangelicals, emerging church evangelicals, post-evangelicals, "country music voters," and a whole raft of other persuasions.
The humble, reasoned, Bible-led Christian that Obama showed them Saturday may suit them very well.
Christine Wicker is the author of "The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church." Her website is www.ChristineWicker.com