Barack Obama’s camp recently decided to conduct something called the “Barack Obama: Faith, Family and Values Tour.” The campaign enlisted evangelical surrogates such as author Donald Miller and other pro-life Democrats on a swing through the battleground states. Yet despite previous faith-based tours and new “Believer for Obama” merchandise, a recent University of Akron poll revealed that Obama hasn’t made any inroads among evangelical voters.
The Democratic Party realizes it needs the support of undecided voters in swing states such as Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri and Florida. To secure these votes, the Obama team must win over centrist evangelicals and mainline Protestants who live in those areas. But it’s an uphill fight.
In the University of Akron poll, white evangelical Protestants favored John McCain over Obama 57 percent to 20 percent, with 22 percent remaining undecided. At the same point in the 2004 election season, white evangelicals preferred George W. Bush over John Kerry 60 percent to 20 percent, with 20 percent undecided.
The numbers show that history may be repeating itself. However, the study was conducted between June and August, before both parties’ conventions and before McCain named Sarah Palin as his running mate. There may be time left for the Obama team to fine-tune its message to voters who were inspired by the display of faith at the Democratic convention (or who are dismayed by the selection of Palin, whose not-so-centrist beliefs might alienate moderates).
An Obama campaign official said that the candidate’s previous faith-based tour was more of a fact-finding mission, but that his most recent effort would focus on “why people of faith and values support Obama.” Surrogates like pro-life Democrat Timothy Roemer and Professor Douglas Kmiec of Pepperdine University were scheduled to address audiences at community centers and discuss Obama’s and Joe Biden’s stances on hot-button evangelical issues.
Although increasing dialogue between evangelicals and Democrats is a smart strategy, the University of Akron poll suggests that the Obama team may want to spend less time talking about topics such as abortion and gay marriage, on which they are unlikely to win over evangelicals.
However, if the 2004 race serves as a history lesson, Obama can’t win by only securing what John Green, the political scientist behind the Akron poll, calls the “modernist evangelical vote — those with less traditional beliefs and practices.”
Rather, the Obama camp may need to find common ground with evangelicals whose positions on abortion share space with more traditionally Democratic social justice and environmental issues, such as poverty, global warming, education and peacemaking.
According to an article in Yes! Magazine, there are “a growing number of evangelicals creating an alternative to an evangelical political platform long dominated by hot-button issues such as gay marriage and abortion.” This group includes evangelical Rev. Joel Hunter, who gave the closing prayer at the 2008 Democratic National Convention and is author of the book A New Kind of Conservative. Although these evangelicals are not giving up their socially conservative beliefs, like other Democrats they are concerned about social justice.
“As a movement progresses and matures,” Hunter told Yes! Magazine, “it begins to define itself by what it’s for instead of what it’s against. It starts to think of pro-life in terms of life outside the womb as well as inside the womb.”
A social justice message might also help the Obama camp reach out to minority evangelicals. According to a 2004 poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research Inc. for Religion & Ethics Newsweekly and U.S. News & World Report, “while white evangelicals considered socially conservative moral values their first priority (37 percent), 41 percent of black and 34 percent of Hispanic respondents placed a different moral issue — the economy — first.”
Instead of simply repeating its commitment to “reducing abortions” — a strategy that is unlikely to win the hearts of evangelicals, the University of Akron poll suggests — the Obama campaign would do well to emphasize the points of commonality between the Democratic Party and the leading edges of evangelical movements that are focusing on social justice and environmental concerns. Whether Obama can fine-tune his message, and how it will sound to the ears of a younger (and more diverse) generation of evangelicals, remains to be seen.
This column, by USC Annenberg School for Communication Dean’s Scholar and Broadcast Journalism M.A. candidate Brooke-Sidney Gavins, is drawn from The Scoop, a blog on the Knight Chair in Media and Religion site.