Reprinted from the Wall Street Journal Online
If Bill Clinton was the first white to be a black president, could Barack Obama be the first non-evangelical to be an evangelical president?
Huh? — you might be grunting.
If Sen. Obama can’t even win moderate white Catholics –- and he lost them again yesterday in Indiana -– then how on earth could he win evangelicals, the most reliable, conservative base of the Republican Party? He’s pro-choice, pro-gay-rights, and his connection to Rev. Jeremiah Wright has many moderate religious voters worried.
And yet, if he’s the nominee, Obama has a real chance at winning substantial evangelical support.
First, evangelicals are in a period of de-alignment from the Republican Party. The leading evangelical pollster George Barna found that only 29% of “born again” Christians now say they support Republicans, compared with 62% in 2004. That doesn’t mean they’ll flock to Democrats -– they could end up voting Republican just as much ever -– but large numbers are up for grabs.
Second, Sen. Obama has been working harder for their support than any other Democrat in recent memory. In his book “The Audacity of Hope”, instead of describing the religious right as a grotesque, right-wing power grab (as many on the left do), Sen. Obama said that its rise stemmed from Christians “feeling mocked and under attack.” Far from casting them as bigots, he declared that “most evangelicals are more tolerant than the media would have us believe.”
Sen. Obama has ripped Democrats for their failure to tap into the moral and even religious underpinnings of their views. “If we progressives shed some of our own biases, we might recognize the values that both religious and secular people share when it comes to the moral and material direction of the country,” he wrote.
Third, he sounds evangelical. In an interview with the leading evangelical publication Christianity Today, he said, “I am a Christian, and I am a devout Christian. I believe in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that that faith gives me a path to be cleansed of sin and have eternal life. But most importantly, I believe in the example that Jesus set by feeding the hungry and healing the sick and always prioritizing the least of these over the powerful.”
This is a far cry from Howard Dean who as a candidate in 2004 talked about Job being his favorite book in the New Testament.
Finally, Sen. Obama’s race may actually be a plus with some evangelicals. Lauren Winner, a popular young evangelical author and assistant professor of divinity at Duke University, predicts that evangelicals will go for Sen. Obama “in droves” not only because Sen. Obama seems to embody “good values” but also because the black church “strikes white Christians as ‘real religion,’ ‘real Christianity’ in a way that Clinton’s Methodism or McCain’s Episcopalianism do not.”
Let me now offer up the contrary evidence. In a poll of Ohio voters, Sen. Clinton beat Sen. Obama among evangelicals. My Beliefnet colleague Dan Gilgoff (a.k.a. Mr. God-o-meter) is skeptical. In Indiana, Sen. Clinton beat Sen. Obama among weekly churchgoers 52% to 48%, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright no doubt hurting among whites.
But I suspect that evangelicals will split according to age, income and class lines, just as other groups did. In fact, in an online survey on Beliefnet.com of evangelicals, Sen. Obama’s favorable ratings for evangelicals 45 and older was 42% while his favorable ratings for those younger than that was 64.4%
I’m certainly not saying this will be easy. The majority of evangelicals are conservative and will likely still vote Republican. But given that evangelicals make up a quarter of the electorate and a third of President Bush’s winning coalition, if Sen. Obama can at least get what Bill Clinton got in 1996 (32% of white evangelicals) instead of what Sen. John Kerry did in 2004 (22%) that could make the difference between victory and defeat.