Obama and Evangelicals
Lots of things about Barack Obama are unusual. With the possible exception of Bill Clinton, he’s the brightest politician on the national stage in two generations. In raw intellect, he towers over both parties’ presidential fields. His academic credentials are the best since Woodrow Wilson’s. He understands economics better than the entire Republican field and much better than most Democrats.
But Obama’s qualities go far beyond intelligence and reason. His humanity is transcendent, too. Listen to him—really listen. Read him. If you do, you will find something unique about him, at least among politicians. Obama is a truly spiritual man.
I’m not talking about his being a Christian. Every presidential candidate claims to be a Christian of some sort. They all wear their religion on their lapels like some intangible campaign badge. They put it on when they want to attract religious voters. Then they take if off, just as quickly, when the campaigning is done.
Obama is different. He’s spiritual not in his political persona but in his heart.
That’s why he hasn’t slammed Hillary Clinton as a second-rate intellect, a failed leader, and a flawed candidate. It’s not his style. It’s not in his nature to attack and condemn. He prefers to find good and humanity in everyone, and he can bring it out. That may not be the best approach to campaigning in an era of rabid negativity, but it will bring us a world of change when he wins.
I say “when” because I think Obama has a secret constituency: evangelical voters. They don’t all know it yet, but he is the only candidate in either party whom they can happily support and who can win. When they learn who he is, they will turn to him—maybe not the leaders and pontificators, but the rank and file. That’s why, I think, Obama is doing better now in Iowa than in New Hampshire, whose voters are more secular.
Our evangelicals now know that George W. Bush and Karl Rove betrayed them. Worse yet, they know that Bush and Rove betrayed Jesus’ teaching.
Where Jesus preached peace, Bush and Rove brought war. Where Jesus taught uncritical love for sinners, Bush and Rove encouraged hate and exclusion—for homosexuals, for those who support abortion rights, even for the poor. Where Jesus kicked money-changers out of the temple and praised the spiritual value of poverty, Bush and Rove urged us to keep our own money and spurn those in need. So we abandoned the poor and uninsured—even our own lower middle class—to the tender mercies of an uncaring global marketplace. Where Jesus taught humility and community, Bush and Rove personify arrogance and unilateralism in both domestic politics and foreign affairs. Take any caring innovation in Jesus’ words, as reported in the New Testament, and you will find that Bush and Rove did just the opposite.
The trouble is, evangelicals read the Bible. They are beginning to realize that the neocons conned them. They are turning away from right-wing politics of hate, selfishness, self-righteousness and division. They are turning again toward Jesus’ path of love, understanding, humility, and generosity.
Not a week goes by without a new report of this phenomenon. Having rediscovered that Genesis anoints us as stewards of our Earth, evangelicals are jumping on the environmental bandwagon in order to become good stewards. The best of them are learning how to retard global warming in order to preserve our planet as God made it. Having discovered anew that laissez faire capitalism has victims, they are starting to care again about the poor and abandoned, just as Jesus did.
Many are leaving the right-wing megachurches and starting their own schismatic movements. The young are often in the vanguard. Youth are quick to see hypocrisy in their elders. They are first to kill and be killed in unjust wars. They now understand that Jesus and jingoism do not mix. They are leaving the Republican party and becoming independents, and their votes are up for grabs.
So whom can evangelicals trust? Every candidate will pander to them to some extent, just because their votes reportedly were decisive in the last two presidential elections. How can they be sure that whoever is elected won’t betray them—and Jesus—again as Bush and Cheney have done? When these disappointed religious voters go to the polls, whom should they pick?
Hillary Clinton is lost to them. For them, through no fault of her own, she personifies personal moral decay and the family’s decline. In any event, she has no moral core and little moral courage. She twists and turns in every political wind, as her little two-step at the last Democratic debate showed so well. So if evangelicals want moral constancy, the leading Democrat is not likely to get many of their votes.
What about the leading Republicans? Mitt Romney is Hillary’s male counterpart: he’ll say anything, and he’ll claim he believes anything, to get elected. He’s already disclaimed his previous pro-choice stance on abortion and his work for universal health care in Massachusetts. Even if these turnabouts were sincere, and not matters of political expediency, he could always change his mind again once elected.
As for Giuliani, his stance on guns, gays and abortion is far from evangelicals’. What’s more, his lie about 9/11, although subtle, was one of the most morally outrageous acts in recent American political history. He claimed that New York firefighters’ own courage killed them during the 9/11 attacks, implying that they disobeyed orders to evacuate the doomed North Tower. In fact, they never received those orders because Giuliani’s mayoralty never got them radios that worked, despite eight years of imploring. If Giuliani is a spiritual and moral leader, I’m Napoleon.
So whom among the leading candidates could evangelicals trust? There is only one who says he is a Christian, actually acts like one, and has a plausible claim to moral constancy and courage. That candidate is Obama.
Obama bears his Christianity in his heart, not on his sleeve. He has a rock-solid family, with no history of straying or divorce. More important, his moral constancy and courage reveal a man of spiritual depth. He gave his famous speech against invading Iraq not after we appeared to be losing the war, but when Bush’s popularity was at 65% and even the media were joining the drumbeat to war. He was a lone voice of sanity and humanity in the wilderness. When Obama spoke of the need for conservation and greater fuel efficiency to save our country and our planet, he stood before the captains of the car industry at the Detroit Economic Club, who most needed to hear that message.
As for humanity, Obama has disclaimed first use of nuclear weapons even against Al Qaeda. That stand is contrary to the longstanding U.S. policy of leaving all military options on the table. It fundamentally contradicts the Bush Administration’s pre-emption doctrine, which implicitly endorses the first use of nuclear weapons when necessary to avoid anticipated attacks. Obama has the moral courage to take that stand when terrorists’ use of nuclear weapons is our greatest national nightmare.
That stand may be the most important “pro life” position of any political figure today. In this age of terror and proliferation, the risk of nuclear weapons actually being used is greater than at any time since 1962. It is growing daily. If Obama’s position can provide an example for others and avoid future use of nuclear weapons, it may save more human lives than all the protests against abortion and the death penalty in human history.
I myself am more cynical. I am on record opposing unilateral disclaimers of any nuclear first strike. But I think Obama’s position is supportable practically, and I admire his moral constancy and his moral courage. Jesus would not launch nuclear weapons either.
So I hope that evangelicals and other religious voters will give Obama a second look. He is the only candidate in whom they can find both a kindred spirit and a winner. Only he shares their best principles. Among leading candidates, only he has shunned the contradictions and inconstancy that make them gag.
Obama does not just pretend to believe in Jesus; he lives Jesus’ words. He does so even in the white heat of a political campaign. Once religious voters get to know him, they will be charmed. So don’t be surprised at fast-breaking trends, which may never show up in the polls until he’s won.
As for those of you who (like me) value reason over faith, don’t be troubled by seeing Obama at churches, prayer meetings, and revivals. Don’t think that he is pandering or forsaking his intellect or his principles. He is just showing who he is and bringing Jesus’ children home.