As we approach the inauguration of President Barack Obama, it is worth a final reflection on the election that brought him (and us) to this point. Most elections are just power rearrangements; this one was a transformational moment in our history. First of all, this represents a watershed moment in the life of our country. Regardless of how you voted, our entire nation can celebrate the milestone of our first African-American president. We can all embrace this profound opportunity for deeper racial reconciliation and social justice.
This is also a moment to recognize that fundamental shifts are taking place in America— political, cultural, racial, generational, and religious shifts.
The leadership of African-American and Latino Christians, along with that of a new generation of the faithful in white America, is ending an age of narrow and divisive religion. This new faith coalition voted for a broad new moral agenda for faith in public life. Racial and economic justice, creation care, peacemaking, and a more consistent ethic of life will be the keystones of this growing shift.
This changing face of religion in America was noted right after the election, when The Wall Street Journal reported, “A concerted effort since 2004 helped Barack Obama and the Democrats make significant inroads with religious voters. Reversing his party’s poor showing among faith-based voters in the 2004 presidential election, Mr. Obama won among Catholics, 54 percent to 45 percent, made gains among regular churchgoers, and eroded a bit of the evangelical support that has been a fixture of Republican electoral success for years.”
Many have pointed out how much the Democrats have changed—how they learned to reach out to the faith community, produced a nominee who is a committed Christian and speaks of an “awesome God in the blue states,” and even had a party convention where, for the first time in many years, participants thought faith was “cool.” Of course, black churches have always been deeply evangelical, but they were never seriously courted by the Republican Party and never have been a central focus of the media. “Evangelical” has come to mean “white evangelical” in our recent political discourse.
THREE FACTORS are key to understanding the religious shift.
First, the leadership of the African-American and Latino churches was more important than ever in an American election. This time, white evangelicals played a supporting role. Instead, Christians of color—who are almost all “evangelical” in their theology—did the leading.
The election results reflect a surge of support among African-American and Latino voters, galvanized by a campaign and a candidate who better spoke to their aspirations and values. Their overwhelming support marks a growing shift within the religious landscape toward marrying social conservatism with a deep commitment to social justice. Recent studies indicate that Latino voters are very pro-life on abortion yet also consider the debate on immigration as a key religious and “life” issue.
Second, a new generation of pastors and students cast a “post-Religious Right” ballot this election. Polls leading up to the election showed a significant break from the previous generation on issues such as gay marriage, and while abortion is still a top concern, it is not the only one. For those Christians, sanctity of life now includes poverty, war, genocide, and climate change. Healthy families are also still a top concern, but many Christians don’t see gay and lesbian rights as a relevant cause of family breakdown.
These religious voters refuse to be distracted by the culture wars of the previous generation. Evangelicals of this new generation are not the evangelicals the country is used to seeing and hearing about in the media, and they are already reshaping the future agenda. The break is so stark that several conservative evangelical college newspapers endorsed Obama.
Third, we see a broadening of the agenda, with fewer single-issue voters. “Pro-life” voters are realizing that their faith calls for a consistent ethic of life from “womb to tomb.” Voters are now judging candidates based on who best addresses all the threats to human life and dignity. And for some, a more pragmatic strategy of serious abortion reduction, rather than a strategy of continuing only to try to make abortion illegal, is appealing. Common ground is emerging that could break the ideological deadlock of the past 30 years.
This consistent ethic of life has caused a significant shift in the political agenda of many Christians by expanding their definition of what it means to be pro-life. They are tired of political pandering to the issue that seems to be more about winning elections than about pragmatic solutions.
CHRISTIANS OF COLOR, younger white Christians, “new evangelical” pastors and leaders, progressive Catholics, and Protestants from many denominations are reaching across barriers to change the face of Christianity in this country—and also to engage with allies in other faith communities. They have learned many lessons from the mistakes of the Religious Right, and they aren’t about to repeat them. And they are not about to become a new “Religious Left.” When asked if they are liberal or conservative, many answer “yes,” depending on the issue.
In this issue of Sojourners, a diverse group of these Christians (and others) offer their thoughts to the new president. They are young and older; white, African American, and Latino; women and men. And because they don’t easily fit the political categories of left and right, they could become bridge-builders, bringing a divided nation together on the really big and politically transcendent issues such as poverty and human rights, climate change, energy transformation, and the urgent need for peace. The faith community can now play a new role—bringing people together on the biggest moral issues of our time, even across old political divisions.
And isn’t that just what our new president is calling for?
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.