Quote of the Day

We evangelicals aren’t inherently stupid, although we do get that way at election time. Push the scare button, give us a choice, and we’ll choose Barabbas, the people’s criminal, 9 out of 10. Nonetheless, even our political gullibility has its limits. Supporting mean-spirited, hawkish, unyielding ideologues isn’t the path my Sunday School teachers taught me. Obama may not be the absolutely perfect, heaven-come-down package. But I’ve already god a Messiah, I’m just looking for a decent president. Obama ‘08.

–Dale Littlerrood of Charlotte, NC. Letter to the editor published November 3, 2008 in The Charlotte Observer:

If History is Any Indication…

Will Trump win the GOP nomination?

Who will win the Republican primary?  If recent history is any indication, it is far too early to tell. And with the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary not taking place until February 2016, anything can happen

Let’s look at the past few election cycles:

In December 2012, Newt Gingrich was leading in the polls.  Mitt Romney eventually got the GOP nomination.

In December 2008, Rudy Giuliani was leading in the polls. Mike Huckabee was in second place. John McCain eventually got the GOP nomination.

In December 2004, Howard Dean was leading in the polls.  He was followed by Joe Lieberman and Wesley Clark.  John Kerry eventually got the GOP nomination.

We have a long way to go.

What If You Hold a Religion and Civility Forum and Nobody Comes?

Writing at The New Republic, Amy Sullivan argues that whatever kind of cultural and political clout Rick Warren once had has all but disappeared. You may recall that in 2008 Warren conducted a televised forum with Barack Obama and John McCain.  He called it the “Saddleback Church Civil Forum on the Presidency.” 

Warren tried to do it again in 2012, but neither Obama nor Romney were willing to come.  Warren said that he canceled the forum because the candidates were campaigning in an uncivil fashion, but Sullivan argues that the real reason the forum was canned was because Warren no longer carries the weight he once did in Christian circles and thus could not convince the campaigns that a nationally televised talk with him was worthwhile.

Here is a taste:

For the past few years, Warren has scoffed at the idea that he has any real involvement in politics. With this latest episode, the California pastor has also proven that he is not a leader. A real leader doesn’t respond to incivility in politics (the horror!) by throwing up his hands and cancelling a forum that he himself described as “a place where people of goodwill can seriously disagree on significant issues without being disagreeable or resorting to personal attack and name-calling.” And if that wasn’t the real reason he was cancelling the event, a real leader would swallow his pride and tell the truth.

Have the Democrats Abandoned Faith-Based Voters?

Yes, according to Tiffany Stanley’s recent article in The New Republic.

Between 2004 and 2007, when Obama announced his candidacy for president, he became possibly the most prominent Democratic politician who was comfortable speaking about religion—a liberal who gave the impression that his religiosity was heartfelt, genuine, and important to his politics. He spoke with ease about his conversion; of the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, Jr.; and, in a key speech before the Call to Renewal conference in 2006, of the importance of “religion in the public square.” In the 2008 presidential election, Obama’s message seemed to resonate with religious people who had not, in recent years, gravitated toward the Democratic Party. He won more churchgoers than any Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton.
But, in just two short years, the left has become sluggish in its courtship of religious voters, significantly scaling back its faith-outreach programs. While many factors—primarily the economy—doomed the Democrats this fall, the consequences of this abdication nevertheless seem to be severe. In the recent midterm elections, House Democrats lost white evangelical voters in greater numbers than they did in 2004, when “values voters” flocked to George W. Bush. Reversing their Democratic allegiance from the past two elections, Catholics—nearly a quarter of all voters—favored the GOP 54 to 44 percent. Compared to 2008, the drop-offs were steep: a 20-point decline with Catholics, a 14-point decline with white evangelicals, and a 10-point decline with white Protestants. How and why did this happen?
So here is the question:  Did the Democrat’s failure to attract religious votes in the 2010 midterm election happen because:
a).  Democrats, as Stanley argues in her piece, stopped speaking religious language and appealing to religious voters.
b).  Americans did not like how much money Obama was spending and it just so happens that people who do not like such government spending are also religious.
Which leads to another question:  If Obama’s spending on health care, the bailout, etc… would have been somehow couched in religious language, would Democrats have fared better among religious voters?

A New Religious Narrative for Obama

Over at Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, University of Virginia theologians Paul Dafydd Jones and Charles Mathewes offer some advice to Barack Obama about how he might use religion to overcome his mid-term doldrums.

Jones and Mathewes suggest that Obama should talk more about his Christian faith. They write:

…the White House should discontinue its purely reactive approach to claims about Obama’s beliefs and undertake a sustained effort to have him tell his own story as a Christian believer.

In other words, Obama should talk publicly about what he believes and how he believes it. He needn’t do it all the time. He needn’t do it all that often. But when he does do it, he should do it simply, plainly, frankly, and deliberately.

So far, the president has made occasional remarks about his beliefs, but they’ve been just that—occasional and largely an afterthought to his public persona. His administration has proved astonishingly “unmusical” when it comes to religion. No one in Obama’s inner circle seems to understand how religious issues and themes are implicated in his presidency and how religion factors into domestic and international politics.

But isn’t Obama’s Christianity a private matter? Isn’t it peripheral to the real issues at hand? Not right now. The culture is desperate for adult guidance when it comes to religion. While citizens stand under no obligation to talk about their religious convictions, people expect more of the president, and this political moment requires more from this president, lest discussions about religion become still more coarse and vicious, and our political culture even more degraded.

We’re not suggesting Obama should talk about his faith for purely pragmatic reasons, although God knows—and Rahm Emanuel does, too—there are likely to be political advantages. He should recognize by now that if he won’t talk about his beliefs, his opponents happily will; politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There are sound civic reasons for doing this as well. The office of the presidency has a representative function. It is not just about the day-to-day running of the government. It’s about shaping public conversation on a variety of matters of common concern, religion included.

Nor are we asking Obama to be the believer-in-chief of American civil religion. We’re simply saying he should offer himself as one example in America today of what it means to believe. He should render his religious persona public, for the good of the republic as a whole.

A president willing to talk about his own faith could do some powerful civic good. Obama’s biography suggests he has much to offer. He has spoken movingly of his mother as someone who did not believe in God, but who epitomized a life well lived. He has intimate knowledge of Islam and other religious traditions and appreciates their richness in a way that has not hindered his Christianity—a serious believer who is seriously alert to the power of other beliefs.

I agree with Jones and Mathewes. When it comes to religion I think we need more of Obama the candidate. I watched him on several occasions in 2008, including his visit to Messiah College, articulate the way in which his faith might inform his policy. Back then he was articulate about his Christian beliefs. He convinced me that his faith mattered to him and might even influence how he governed.

Now I feel duped.

Does Rick Warren Represent the "Black American Soul" on Gay Marriage?

The buzz over Obama’s choice of Rick Warren to give the inaugural prayer continues. Readers of my op-ed in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer are filling my inbox and the Inquirer on-line comments board with their reactions. The commentators on the message board stopped writing directly about my argument sometime around 7:00am this morning. Since then the comment board (76 comments and counting) has turned into a forum for bashing Warren and his supposedly intolerant views.

One thing is clear: there are a lot of people, particularly in the LGBT community, who feel Obama has betrayed them. It is understandable that they are lashing out.

In my opinion, the New Republic has offered the best coverage of the Obama-Warren controversy. I have already commented here on the Alan Wolfe’s thought provoking piece. Today, the NR has included articles by Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne (it is actually a reprint of his regular Post column) and Manhattan Institute fellow John McWhorter.

Dionne’s article, “Big Tent,” make perfect sense. Like Wolfe, Dionne understands that Rick Warren is not your run of the mill member of the Religious Right. He has been at the forefront of a move to expand the evangelical agenda beyond opposition to gay marriage and abortion. He wants that agenda to include the fight against poverty, the war on global AIDS, and a concern with global warming. Dionne rightly asks Warren to apologize for comparing gays to pedophiles, but because of Warren’s commitment to social justice, Dionne believes that “inviting Warren (to pray) opens more doors than it closes.”

Dionne sees the irony in the liberal attacks on Warren. He writes:

But a more benign view on parts of the religious left casts Warren as the evangelical best positioned to lead moderately conservative white Protestants toward a greater engagement with the issues of poverty and social justice, and away from a relentless focus on abortion and gay marriage.

Part of this irony, at least as I see it, is that prior to his support of Proposition 8 Rick Warren was a media darling. He was an evangelical that even some liberals could stomach. He was heralded as a new sort of evangelical who transcended party politics and was sympathetic to the concerns of liberals. This reputation has now been tarnished a bit, but Dionne reminds us that Warren is still the kind of guy who Obama should keep close. As I argued in today’s Inquirer, I think Dionne is on the mark here.

John McWhorter, an African-American conservative and an Obama supporter in the 2008 election, approaches the Obama-Warren controversy from a different perspective. In his essay “Into the Fold,” McWhorter argues that “Rick Warren is every bit as much in line with the black American soul as his fellow inaugural performer, Aretha Franklin.” He reminds us that 70% of black voters in California joined Rick Warren in their support of Proposition 8 and thus suggests that Rev. Joseph Lowery, the pro-choice, pro gay marriage African American pastor who will pray the closing prayer at the inauguration, does not represent all African-Americans on social issues.

McWhorter describes how many progressives probably feel about the large number of African-Americans opposed to gay marriage:

No doubt, given the moral triumph of the Civil Rights revolution in teaching us to rise against bigotry, many blacks’ turfy resistance to gay people portraying their cause as a Civil Rights struggle is, frankly, embarrassing.

Today in the Inquirer I wondered why liberals did not raise opposition to Billy Graham’s long history of inauguration prayers and sermons. McWhorter offers an equally compelling, albeit hypothetical, situation. Would there be as much outrage if Obama had chosen someone like T.D. Jakes to give the inaugural prayer? He writes:

Suppose Obama had invited black megastar preacher T.D. Jakes instead. Jakes heads a 30,000 member Dallas church, reaches millions more with the television show The Potter’s Touch, and was designated “perhaps the most influential black leader in America” by The Atlantic. His church runs outreach programs as well as anti-poverty efforts in Africa. Yet like Warren, Jakes dissociates himself from those who “support abortion, homosexuality and other things I see as unscriptural.”

Still, I suspect that progressives’ reaction to Jakes‘ inclusion would be vastly less indignant. Surely the justification for that view would not be that black people, shall we say, “cling to” religion because of the exigencies of their past and present. No–there would be a sense that for a black preacher, views like Jakes’s were something to let pass as “diverse,” unsurprising in a pastor of any color, with his presence as an articulate and inspiring figure in black America more important than ideological details at such a momentous event. Why must Warren be fumigated against, then? Because as a white person, he’s supposed to know better? What other difference between Warren and Jakes is so crucial?

Both Dionne and McWhorter give us a lot to think about. Both of their pieces move beyond polemics and Warren-bashing to bring some thoughtful commentary to this debate.

Alan Wolfe on What Rick Warren’s Acceptance of Obama’s Invitation Really Means

Alan Wolfe is optimistic about a future progressive turn among American evangelicals.

Writing in today’s New Republic, Wolfe sees Rick Warren’s acceptance of Obama’s invitation to pray at the inauguration as a sign that evangelicals are moving out of their own secluded subculture and into the mainstream of American (political?) culture. For Wolfe, Warren’s willingness to accept Obama’s invitation is more important than Obama offering it. (Despite what many liberals and members of the LGBT community seem to think). Warren’s acceptance of Obama’s invitation, according to Wolfe, will (and has already) resulted in backlash from the more conservative wing of American evangelicalism. Wolfe’s hope is that “Obama’s election will lead the more extreme right-wing Christians to purge their ranks of people such as (Richard) Cizek (sic)–and Warren. Maybe we should encourage them to do so, for this will weaken them politically by drawing them even further from the center.”

I am struck by four things about Wolfe’s short piece.

First, Wolfe understands, unlike much of the recent press coverage, that Warren, despite his opposition to gay marriage and support of California’s Proposition 8, is indeed a different kind of evangelical than those who associate with the Religious Right. Warren represents evangelicals concerned with cultural and political engagement in a way strikingly different from folks like Dobson, Falwell, and Robertson. He represents evangelicals concerned with the poor, global suffering, health care, and climate control. Warren does see eye-to-eye with the Religious Right on gay marriage, as most evangelicals do, but he stands more for the future of the movement than its past. This may seem like splitting hairs, but the difference is important. It goes a long way toward explaining why Warren accepted Obama’s invitation.

Second, I think Wolfe, who seems somewhat giddy about the way that Warren’s acceptance of Obama’s offer to pray has divided evangelicals, is overly optimistic about evangelicals changing their minds about gay marriage and other social issues. Wolfe has studied evangelicals, but I am not sure he really knows them. The Christian college where I teach (a place where Wolfe will be visiting in the spring) has recently been addressing the question of Christian homosexuals. In fact, there have been some members of the student body who have been open about their homosexuality in the college newspaper. But despite these isolated cases, most college students I encounter at a Christian college (and I might add, a Christian college often accused by conservative evangelicals as being too “liberal”) still uphold traditional views of marriage and would be opposed to thinking about this social institution any other way.

Third, I DO think that Wolfe’s accomodation thesis has some merits. Evangelicals, remember, are Protestants. And ever since the Reformation Protestants have felt free to change their interpretation of the Bible on a whim. Evangelicals have made this an art form. Wolfe, in other words, has evangelical history on his side. The story of American evangelicalism has always, as historians such as Nathan Hatch and Mark Noll have suggested, been one of cultural accomodation. (I make a similar argument, drawing from Noll and others, in The Way of Improvement Leads Home). I just think, as I argued in the previous paragraph, accomodation on gay marriage is going to take a lot longer than Wolfe projects.

Fourth, Wolfe writes as if Rick Warren, as an evangelical pastor, is breaking new ground by accepting Obama’s invitation to pray. “Warren’s decision to accept an invitation from a liberal president,” Wolfe notes, “is as clear a symbol of the entry of evangelicals into mainstream culture as one can imagine.” If this is the case, then what does Wolfe make of Billy Graham’s decision to pray at both of Bill Clinton’s inauguration ceremonies? (Graham was also a part of Lyndon Johnson’s inaugural festivities). Clinton may not have been as “liberal” as Obama, but he was certainly pro-choice, pro-gay, and, if I remember correctly, drew intense heat for it from the evangelical community.

How Much is Your Vote Worth?

Last month an NYU School of Journalism class asked 3000 NYU undergraduates what it would take for them to forfeit their right to vote in the 2008 presidential election. Here were the results:

•20% would give up their right to vote in the 2008 presidential election for a new ipod.
•66% would give up their right to vote in the 2008 presidential election for a full ride to NYU.
•50% would give up their right to vote forever for $1 million dollars.
•70.5% believe that one vote CAN make a difference.

My colleague Cathay Snyder decided to conduct a similar survey with 89 students in our U.S. History survey class at Messiah College. Here are the results:

•25% would give up their right to vote in the 2008 presidential election for a new ipod.
•88% would give up their right to vote in the 2008 presidential election for a full ride to Messiah College.
•53% would give up their right to vote forever for $1 million dollars
•71% believe that one vote CAN make a difference.

The Messiah results are generally the same as the NYU results, but it is clear that more Messiah College students would give up the right to vote for a college education than students at NYU. Perhaps Messiah College students place more value on their college education than students at NYU. (I might also add that the NYU tuition and room and board is roughly $17,000 more expensive than Messiah). Or perhaps Messiah students are less civic-minded than NYU students.

It is also interesting that about 70% of students at both institutions think that their vote can make a difference. Yet, despite this conviction, many are willing to give up this opportunity to “make a difference” for an i-pod, college tuition, or a million dollars.

Do these rather unscientific polls (especially our Messiah survey) tell us anything about American democracy?

Did Obama "Lure" Religious Voters?

On the day after the presidential election, Steve Waldman of Beliefnet.com explained in the Wall Street Journal how Obama managed to “lure millions of religious voters.” According to Waldman, Obama did it by:

1. Emphasizing his personal faith
2. Capitalizing on the rise of the religious left
3. Emphasizing his commitment to reducing abortions.
4. Choosing a white Catholic as his running mate.

I have a hard time arguing with Waldman on all of these points. While I agree that Obama’s faith-talk influenced the election, I do think his influence among religious voters was minor. But a minor dent in this demographic was really all he needed to win the election.

Not everyone agrees with Waldman. Pastordan at Daily Kos’s “Street Prophets” blog and Mark Silk at Spiritual Politics believe that Waldman has overestimated Obama’s appeal among religious voters. While Pastordan and Silk are convincing, they misrepresent Waldman’s argument. It seems to me that Waldman is arguing that Obama made just enough of an inroad among religious voters to win him the election. (I do wonder, however, if “millions” might be a bit of an exaggeration). Waldman does not seem to be saying that Obama’s victory put an end to the Christian Right or that he is somehow the new darling of religious voters.

I was actually struck more by Waldman’s use of the word “lure” to describe Obama’s campaign strategy among religious voters. The word has a certain sinister quality to it–as if Obama managed to trick some religious voters into voting him. It implies that Obama’s faith-talk was little more than a shrewd political ploy. Was it? Only time will tell.

I am convinced that Obama is indeed a man of Christian faith, but I am not completely confident that he will deliver for the evangelicals, members of the religious left, Catholics, and pro-lifers who voted for him. We will just have to wait and see. Will Obama, once he takes office, become just another liberal American president? Or will his policies be shaped by his religious and theological commitments? If John Schmalzbauer is correct in describing Obama as the most theologically astute president since Jimmy Carter,” one wonders how the ideas of Reinhold Niebuhr or Paul Tillich might shape the next four years. Can we expect another “malaise” speech?


In November 1800, Abigail Adams arrived in the new federal city of Washington to join her husband John in the presidential quarters. The new home for the president was not finished yet, but the Adams’s were intent upon living there. Abigail was impressed with the size of the new house, but she was bothered by the many slaves working in and around the residence. She wrote to her friend Mary Cranch describing twelve slaves, dressed in rags, shoveling dirt outside her window.

The United States has come along way in 208 years. In January an African-American community will be LIVING in the White House.

Election Day Notes

I voted early this morning and then caught a plane to Minneapolis where I am doing some work for the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History. Tomorrow I will be lecturing to students from the Minneapolis Public School District. My topic will be the United States Constitution. On Thursday and Friday I will be leading a workshop on the Constitution with history teachers from the district.

I am quoted in an article on Christian colleges and the election in Medill Reports, a publication of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

At Christianity Today several evangelical leaders weigh in on the religious vote.

Gordon College student newspaper endorses Obama.