In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network yesterday, Barack Obama elaborated on the off-the-record meeting he had with thirty Christian leaders last week, and revealed that he channeled Ronald Reagan to win their hearts.

Centrist evangelicals (and even a few conservative ones) are so fed up with Bush and the GOP that they are willing to give Obama a look. The centrists say they are leaving the culture wars behind and focusing on fixing poverty, health care, the environment, and ending the war.

Sounds like a no-brainer for Obama, right? All he needs to do is lay out how his progressive vision for America will accomplish all that.

But that’s not what he’s doing. Instead, he’s pandering to the conservatives by quoting the definitive moment in Ronald Reagan’s courtship of the religious right: when, after clinching the GOP nomination in 1980, he told a group of 15,000 activists assembled by Moral Majority co-founder Ed McAteer, “I know you can’t endorse me. But I want you to know that I endorse you.” Obama did essentially the same thing:

I opened up the meeting by quoting Ronald Reagan which was saying,
I know you can't endorse me, but I endorse you. I endorse the good
works that are being done, the wonderful ministries that are taking
place all across the country and my goal here is just to have a
dialogue to listen, to learn, to share my faith journey and I think
people came out of it, not necessarily agreeing with me on every issue,
but I think that they recognized that I respected them, I respected
their faith, I respected what they're trying to achieve.

How does that sound to Obama’s progressive base? The areas of disagreement between progressives and conservative evangelicals are not just policy nuances. They represent the fundamental ideology animating the most divisive and cruel tactics of the religious right. Reagan gave those tactics political legitimacy in the speech Obama cited so approvingly.

Meeting attendee Stephen Strang, the evangelical publisher, serves as a regional director for John Hagee's Christians United for Israel, published Hagee’s book Jerusalem Countdown, and has been drumming up support for CUFI’s summit next month. Does Obama ednorse him? Does Obama endorse how the National Association of Evangelicals’ official position calls for “therapy” so that LGBT people can achieve “complete restoration,” and that God himself has ”provided penalties” for women who have abortions? Does the candidate of transparency and accountability endorse T.D. Jakes (who was also at the meeting) who a Mercedes, BMW, Bentley, and private jet, and lives in a multi-million dollar mansion, but gets an “F” for transparency from the conservative Christian group Ministry Watch because he refuses to make his church’s finances an open book?

Winning over evangelical voters should not be ceded to the Republicans, particularly given shifting evangelical attitudes in the post-Bush era. But if the centrist evangelicals are honestly looking for real policy alternatives and a new kind of leadership, Obama should at least have a shot with them by being himself. By channeling Reagan, Obama betrays and belittles his base, distorts his progressive message, and deceives the people whose trust he is straining too hard to earn.

—Sarah Posner