The God question
Aug 15th 2008 | NEW YORK
John McCain and Barack Obama each has a problem with religion. Who will the faithful follow?
IN 2007 James Dobson, who heads Focus on the Family, a powerful Christian group, said that he “would not vote for John McCain under any circumstances.” Mr Dobson said he was worried that the Republican was “not in favour of traditional marriage, and I pray that we won’t get stuck with him.” But now Mr Dobson is reconsidering. It is a strange year for religious voters trying to decide between candidates who, on Saturday August 16th, will air their views on matters spiritual and earthly by talking in turn to Rick Warren, a megachurch pastor in California.
In 2000 and again in 2004 the choice was easy: George Bush wore his religion on his sleeve, declared that Jesus was his favourite philosopher and staunchly promoted religious-conservative positions. This year things are rather different. Mr McCain is an infrequent churchgoer and he hardly mentions his faith. When asked about it, he often speaks not of himself but of one of his North Vietnamese captors, a Christian who treated him kindly. He made enemies on the religious right in 2000 by saying that Jerry Falwell, a televangelist, was among harmful “agents of intolerance”.
He has since been trying to make up ground. He boasts a strong anti-abortion voting record in the Senate and this year he backed a gay-marriage ban in his home state (although he opposed a federal constitutional amendment on it). He has even spoken at Rev Falwell’s university. Still, Karl Rove, who successfully made religious conservatives into effective shock-troops for Mr Bush in the past two presidential elections, thinks that Mr McCain needs to talk more about his personal faith. Mr Warren’s church may give him the opportunity.
Mr Obama has a different set of problems. He has been a Christian since early adulthood. He talks in detail about his faith, and in speeches can cite the books of Micah and Isaiah, or how Leviticus and Deuteronomy cannot be applied letter-for-letter to the modern world. His youthful community-organising fits well with his notion of the “social gospel”. Whatever the numbers of ill-informed (about 10% think he is a Muslim), Mr Obama’s faith is genuine.
But his inflammatory former preacher, who made paranoid and angry anti-American statements from his pulpit, almost derailed Mr Obama’s quest for the Democratic nomination. Mr Obama may want to use his time with Mr Warren to explain to white, middle-American Christians what he saw in the feisty black church he has left. Mr Obama’s church might not be such a big issue if his politics were different. Many Christians, Mr Warren included, are starting to expand their political concerns to include poverty and climate change. But “sin issues”, abortion and homosexuality chief among them, continue to motivate better than anything. Mr Obama is staunchly pro-choice and gay-friendly.
White, evangelical Protestants favour Mr McCain heavily. A survey in June suggested that 61% of them back the Republican, with just 25% for Mr Obama. But it is not all gloom for the Democrat. Barna, a Christian pollster, suggests that Mr Obama is widely liked by Christians of different stripes. Earlier in the year religious leaders, even conservative ones, who participated in an off-the-record conversation with Mr Obama reportedly came away impressed. Thus, despite their traditional party-line positions on social issues, Mr Obama’s comfort with religion and Mr McCain’s distance from it have clearly shaken up religious politics in 2008.
One group of religious voters is particularly intriguing: evangelicals. Mr Obama is unlikely to win among them, but it would help him if he could avoid losing by huge margins, as John Kerry and Al Gore did. But as attention to the race heats up, his record on abortion in particular will be held up to intense scrutiny. As an Illinois legislator he voted against a bill that would have required doctors to treat babies born alive during abortions. He explains that language in the bill would have undermined Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court decision that guarantees abortion rights. In the Senate he voted for a similar bill which did not contain the anti-Roe language. But Christian conservatives may be swayed by his Illinois vote and find themselves, along with Mr Dobson, giving Mr McCain another look.