Obama and Religious Voters

Barack Obama won big among religious voters on Tuesday, chalking up gains over John Kerry's share of the vote in major religious voting blocs: black Protestants, Hispanic Protestants and Catholics, Jews, and even among white evangelicals, Protestants, and Catholics. So that must mean that the Democratic Party's religious outreach worked, right?

Let me humbly offer an Obama-esque rebuttal: We are not a nation of Christians and a few Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, non-theist, and other miscellaneous stragglers. We are one nation of diverse believers and non-believers, and Obama's victory shows that a great many Americans of different faith traditions, and no faith at all, agree on a whole hell of a lot, without divine intervention.

The results of this historic election repudiate narrowly crafted outreach to voters based on their perceived religious preferences. They disprove the idea that voters are comforted by hearing a candidate or his surrogate explain how his policy positions line up with the Bible. They show that Christians across the country have different answers to the question of What Would Jesus Do. And they prove that whether a presidential candidate aligns with a voter's religious viewpoint should be answered by the voter herself -- not by grandstanding mega-church pastors or surrogates with political agendas of their own.

In the last weeks of the campaign, when Obama solidified his majority, he did it without the God talk and with the let's-roll-up-our-sleeves-and-right-our-beloved-country's-course-again talk. It was a prayer of sorts, the kind that Americans of all religious and nonreligious stripes want answered.

The real headline is not how religious voters propelled Obama into office but how alliances between religious groups and progressives can be used to advance a progressive agenda on issues on which they may agree, such as the economy, the environment, or international human rights.

According to exit-polling data analyzed by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Obama improved his performance among every religious group over John Kerry's performance in 2004, although his gains among white evangelicals (a 3 percent to 5 percent increase, depending on how you measure it) and white Catholics (a 4 percent gain) were far more modest, and McCain maintained a majority of both those groups and white mainline Protestants. (McCain won white evangelicals 74 percent to 24 percent; white mainline Protestants 65 percent to 34 percent, and white Catholics 52 percent to 47 percent.)

But among nonwhite Christians, a growing part of the electorate, Obama's increases were "dramatic," said Pew senior fellow John Green. He also noted that the important story of Obama's win among religious voters was "what happened to minority Christians," including black Protestants (Obama got 95 percent of the black vote, up from 88 percent for Kerry), Latinos, most of whom are Christian (66 percent, up from 53 percent for Kerry), and Asians (61 percent, up from 56 percent for Kerry).

Obama also increased his share of voters unaffiliated with any religion by 8 percentage points (75 percent of them voted for Obama, while 67 percent had voted for Kerry), and garnered 79 percent of the Jewish vote (which looked more like Gore's 78 percent than Kerry's 74 percent), despite a relentless campaign of vicious smears, rumors and insinuations targeted at that community and claims that Obama was anti-Israel and a friend of terrorists.

Robert P. Jones, president of Public Religion Research, a consulting firm to organizations like Faith in Public Life, which has promoted the broader, center-left agenda of religious voters beyond abortion and gay marriage, and Third Way, which has tried to defuse culture-war issues like abortion by formulating an abortion-reduction strategy, touted Obama's reduction of the "God gap" in the polling results. Jones noted Obama's slashing of Bush's 29-point advantage among voters who attend church more than once a week, narrowing it to a 12-point advantage for McCain.

Leading evangelical centrists say that the religious right still maintains a hold on a small slice of the electorate but that a center-left religious coalition will have access to a responsive Obama administration that will work with them on solving economic, health-care, energy, environmental, and foreign-policy issues. Richard Cizik, the National Association of Evangelicals' point man in Washington, extolled Obama's ability to understand and articulate complex moral issues and expressed optimism that Obama wants government to partner with faith groups in addressing such broader moral concerns.

Even though Obama was not successful nationally in breaking the Republican hold on white evangelicals, he did make modest gains on Kerry's percentages in North Carolina, Ohio, and Colorado. Although many evangelicals say they are embracing an agenda beyond the culture wars, Obama's position on abortion rights is still a deal breaker for many white evangelicals who were considering voting for him, said David Gushee, a professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, president of Evangelicals for Human Rights, and a prominent critic of the Bush administration's torture policy. Gushee emphasized how impressed he was by the sophistication of Obama's religious outreach, noting that it outpaced those of both John McCain and Hillary Clinton. But, Gushee noted, for rank-and-file evangelicals who did not have that kind of contact with Obama, his "overall approach to the campaign" and ability to discuss moral issues such as in his speech on race in March, was more critical than his appearances at forums like Saddleback Church and Messiah College, specifically directed at religious voters.

Dan Schultz, a United Church of Christ pastor in rural Wisconsin, proprietor of the Daily Kos spin-off blog Street Prophets, and a leading figure in building a religious left, was more blunt about the efficacy of religious outreach. He said that the notion that the Democrats' stepped-up effort was responsible for Obama's greater share of the vote was "bullshit." He added, "I think what works is not that they reached out to religious people per se but that they did a much better job of reaching out to everybody and involving people in those conversations. ... The message that Democrats should take away is that it pays to listen to everybody. ... Not that we have to make ourselves more friendly to religion, or foreground our religious beliefs, but that Democrats should meet religious and nonreligious as friends and fellow citizens."

No doubt many religious activists, shut out of having a say in Washington for so long -- not, as many would have it, by the Democrats, but by years of Republican rule and the Party's monopolization by the religious right -- will see in victory the proof that the Democratic religious outreach worked. But given the breadth and depth of Obama's win, and the mandate the party has to enact meaningful progressive change in Washington, the real lesson about religion of the 2008 election is that parochial outreach to religious voters should be a thing of the past.

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