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Robert S. McElvaine

Robert S. McElvaine

Posted: August 14, 2008 05:53 PM

Back in the Saddle(back)


On Saturday, Barack Obama gets back in the saddle of his presidential campaign following his Hawaii vacation when he and John McCain attend an interfaith forum at Rick Warren's Saddleback megachurch in California.

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This event could have an important impact on the election, and it reflects the possibility of a significant change in the voting patterns of people of faith.

The forum comes in the week after the Barna Group, a Christian research organization, released a poll showing Senator Obama with a 9-point lead over Senator McCain among Christian voters.

Religion has, obviously, been a problem for the Obama campaign, with lies about him being a Muslim being accepted by substantial numbers of voters and the partial truth about things his former pastor said influencing other voters. Appearing with McCain at an interfaith forum hosted by the mainstream Christian Warren could be helpful to Obama with religious voters.

But John McCain also has a very serious political problem over religion: to embrace or to reject the Jesus Thieves of what I call in my new book, Grand Theft Jesus, the Irreligious Wrong.

The Saddleback forum comes two days before Mr. McCain has scheduled an Atlanta fundraiser sponsored by Ralph Reed, a member of those I have named to "Jesus' Ten Most Unwanted List" (which includes among the chosen dishonorees such usual suspects as Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and -- in the demeritus section -- the late Jerry Falwell and the lapsed Ted Haggard, and -- in the dishonorable mention category -- Ann Coulter).

McCain has denounced such charlatans in the past, but he keeps going back to them in his latest campaign.

The transfiguration of John McCain is from maverick to lap dog.

Flipping Race and Religion as Issues: 1960 & 2008

Among the interesting points of comparison between the Election of 1960 and that of 2008 are the roles of religion and race in the two contests.

In 1960, both John Kennedy and Richard Nixon attempted to strike a balance on the issue of civil rights, as each sought to win the support of both white segregationists in the South and of black voters outside that region. Early in the campaign, Nixon chose to pursue the latter by agreeing to support a strong civil rights position pushed on him by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Later in the campaign, however, Nixon saw an opportunity to win several southern states and remained silent when Martin Luther King, Jr., was arrested and sent to a chain gang in Georgia. Kennedy was very worried about losing the white South, but he impulsively took up a staff member's suggestion that he call Rev. King's wife, Coretta. Those differing responses propelled a large shift of African American voters (who had been concerned about Kennedy's religion) from Nixon to Kennedy and made the latter president.

This year, Obama and McCain are trying to strike a balance between religious voters and those who are fearful of the religious right. In a rough parallel to Nixon's switch in 1960, McCain -- who had previously been on the side of right, rather than that of the Right -- was beguiled by the hope of winning over those he had previously recognized as the bad guys. By reaching out to those many of his supporters distrust, Obama may be able to win enough of them over to his side to help him achieve victory on November 4.

In 1960, the factor that endangered the electoral prospects of the Democratic nominee was religion (Kennedy's Catholicism), and one of the controversial issues with which both candidates had to wrestle was race.

In 2008, the factor that endangers the electoral prospects of the presumptive Democratic nominee is race, and one of the controversial issues with which both candidates have to wrestle is religion.

McCain seems to have chosen Nixon's path of embracing those he knows are wrong, but thinks he needs in order to win. For his part, Obama is boldly doing something like what Kennedy did hesitantly: reaching out to those that some of his base fear and dislike. This year, even a shift of Christian voters to the Democrat far less dramatic than the shift of black voters to the Democrat in 1960 could seal an Obama victory.

Saturday's forum gives Obama an excellent opportunity to do just that.

{Historian Robert S. McElvaine is Elizabeth Chisholm Professor of Arts & Letters at Millsaps College. His latest book is Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America 2008-07-01-GTJcoversm.jpg. He is currently at work on a book titled Oh, Freedom! - America in the 1960s, which will be published by Norton.}