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Earl Ofari Hutchinson Headshot

Obama's Evangelical Court -- But Will it Work?

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The Reverend Rick Warren had to fight to get more than a few members of his mega Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California to accept having presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama grace the dais at his church. But Warren persisted, and the recalcitrant evangelicals came around, at least they' didn't publicly complain. Obama in great part helped the sell. He's made it plain that he'll pull out more stops than any other Democratic presidential candidate in recent times to court the evangelicals. He actually thinks his oft professed testament of faith and spout of traditional religious values might get a hearing from evangelicals. But he's also banking that more than a few evangelicals, especially the younger ones, have changed and more of them back Warren's social gospel preachments. That just might translate out to a few more evangelical votes for him. Maybe it will, maybe not.

There are a few vague signs that while there's no seismic shift among evangelicals, there's at least a slight chink in the GOP's iron lock on the evangelical vote. In the 2006 mid-term elections one third of white evangelicals broke ranks and voted for Democrats. That didn't mean that they had completely made peace with the Democrats. But it didn't stop the Democrats and some in the media from writing the epitaph for the power and ability of the Christian evangelicals to sway elections for GOP candidates.

The new line was that with the death of Jerry Falwell in May 2007 and with the evangelicals lacking a nationally known name leader of his stature to rally, inflame, implore, and energize them, and with the failure of the Bush and the GOP congress to get any thing done on their agenda opposing abortion and gay marriage, many would stay home in 2008, or worse, again vote for Democrats. The talk then and now is that many young evangelicals aren't totally consumed by these issues and are more worried about the economy, the war, poverty, HIV/AIDS and global warming.

The epitaph for the evangelicals political demise is in part wishful thinking and all very premature. The Iowa Republican caucus and Michigan primaries in January put a brake on that kind of talk.
Then GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee proved that the evangelical lion was far from dead. It just needed the right spark to revive it. The concerns that propelled Bush to victory in 2004 were still very much on the plate of millions of those that self-identify as evangelicals. They are strategically placed in many key swing states and their numbers haven't dropped, and in 2007, seven out of 10 Americans said they were Christian.

This doesn't mean they share the same politics, ideology, and or hardly uniform in their thinking on abortion, gay marriage, and family values issues. Many are liberal, moderate, and even solid Democrats. They do care about the economy, education, health care. Some are even supportive of abortion and gay rights, deeply opposed to the Iraq war, and are likely to back a Democrat in 2008.
Millions more won't and have no hesitation in describing and identifying as evangelicals and loyally backing GOP candidates with their votes and organizing for them. Christian evangelical leaders have long known that if they could galvanize the faithful they could not only elect local and state officials but presidents as well. They also knew that they could influence if not outright dictate public policy, namely passing legislation, initiatives, and amendments, and influencing public opinion.

The surge in mega churches such as Warren's Saddleback Church with membership at some that topped 30,000 and the proliferation of televangelist programs, and Christian broadcast networks nationally and in local areas has made it easier to spread the evangelical message and subtly influence political causes. The Association of Evangelicals has been on the frontline in fulfilling that mission. The NAE had nearly 50,000 member congregations with 30 million members in 2005.
In a survey by the Detroit News in 2005 following Bush's reelection the question was asked whether the church should have more influence in politics. Nearly sixty percent agreed. Though the majority of Christian evangelicals are Republican leaning, many of them are Democrats too (about thirty percent in some surveys), and that bodes well for Obama. They will vote for Democratic candidates as long as they are conservative and adhere to the moral values tenets, and that may not bode well for Obama who's still widely suspect among conservative evangelicals as a much too liberal Democrat. In any case, the veneer of independence even non-partisanship gives the Christian evangelicals maneuver room to apply even more pressure on the GOP to back their aims.

Obama has to take a shot at netting some of their votes. The sixty to eighty million Christian evangelicals are too big, too important, and to politically strategic to ignore. McCain will move earth and especially heaven to see that Obama doesn't get too many of them. He'll start at Warren's Saddleback Church.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is How the GOP Can Keep the White House, How the Democrats Can Take it Back (Middle Passage Press, August 2008).

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