The Common Good

Marketing Obama to Evangelicals

Date: August 4, 2008

For the past three decades, the religious right has dominated the religio- political dialogue in the United States. The right's growth, and its agenda -- which revolved around so-called traditional family values issues including, but not limited to, opposition to abortion and full equality for gays and lesbians -- was pursued on two tracks: they built multi-million dollar political and media enterprises, and they made themselves an indispensable force within the Republican Party.

More recently, a number of observers have pointed out that the conservative evangelical movement's political power has been diminishing. The deaths of long-time leaders such as Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy, the coming to a close of the George W. Bush Administration, and a Republican Party presidential candidate that is less than inspirational to grassroots conservative evangelicals may indeed, as Focus on the Family's James Dobson has stated, "represent the end of an era."

Now, as the presidential campaign heads into its final stretch, after months of equivocating a group of long-time conservative evangelical leaders have endorsed -- albeit less than enthusiastically -- Senator John McCain, the Republican Party's presumptive presidential nominee. Meanwhile, the campaign of Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic Party's presumptive presidential candidate, has been going out of its way to court religious voters.

Over the course of the campaign there have been questions raised about whether or not the evangelical vote is up for grabs. Will concerns about AIDS in Africa, poverty and the environment trump -- or at least neutralise -- such issues as abortion, stem cell research and gay rights, and bring some evangelical voters to the Democratic Party's column?

A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press, a sister project of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, found that while McCain has a smaller lead among white evangelical Protestants than Bush had at a similar point in the 2004 campaign, Obama has not benefited from evangelicals' concerns over McCain's religious authenticity.

With the religious right appearing to be in disarray, or at the least, undergoing significant changes, forces on what is loosely called the religious left, have been re-emerging. When asked about the rise of the religious left, John Green, Senior Fellow in Religion and American Politics at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, pointed out that "there are a large number of left- leaning religious and political organisations that are active these days, offering an alternative to the religious right."

Some liberal religious groups such as Sojourners, have been around for a while, Green noted, while others such as Faith in Public Life -- which sponsored the "Compassion Forum" on religious issues before the Democratic Party's Pennsylvania primary -- and Catholics United, are relatively new.

"A 'liberal' theological perspective… involves less traditional views of the divine, spirituality and religious authority," and it involves "a liberal perspective on political issues," Green explained.

"The core of the religious left consists of people who are liberal in both their theology and their political outlook, a pattern commonly associated with the term 'progressive.'" But, Green added, "another important sub-group consists of those who have a conservative theological perspective but liberal views on political issues." To complicate matters further, "there are many political moderates among theological liberals."

Some conservatives believe that the religious left is an oxymoron. "The annunciation of a religious left, like the heralding of the religious right's demise, has become a growth industry," Manuel Miranda, the Chairman of the Third Branch Conference, a centre right coalition, told IPS in an e-mail. "It will not succeed for one simple reason: the religious left is really a political agenda speaking to Christians, just as the religious right are religious people influencing politics."

"The religious left is nothing but repackaging of politics for non-doctrinaire spiritualists. It is not a genuine appeal to people of faith," according to Miranda.

However, hoping not to cede this election season's religious landscape once again to conservative Christian evangelicals, a new progressive religious organisation has entered the electoral fray.

The Matthew 25 Network and its Matthew25.org website, is a small but emerging force in U.S. politics. The Network has been organised specifically to support Obama. It is a Federal Political Action Committee (PAC) "that works to elect and promote candidates who share our values through grassroots mobilisation, raising our voices in the media, and paid advertising," according to its website. The Network takes its name from the biblical passage in which Jesus says, "Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these, brethren, you have done it to me." The organisation's Mission Statement declares that it "is a community of Christians -- Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal, and Evangelical -- inspired by the Gospel mandate to put our faith into action to care for our neighbour, especially the most vulnerable."

The Matthew 25 Network "promot[es] life with dignity, caring for the least of these, strengthening and supporting families, stewardship of God's Creation, working for peace and justice at home and abroad, and promoting the common good."

The founder of the group, Mara Vanderslice, has a history of working for the Democratic Party with religious groups. She has worked with Common Good Strategies, "a political consulting firm that worked on connecting elected officials, candidates and state parties with America's diverse religious communities," and before that, she was the director of religious outreach for the John Kerry and John Edwards campaign in 2004.

According to Vanderslice, the group intends to spend at least 500,000 dollars in advertising between now and the Nov. 4 election. They will focus mostly on Christian radio and Christian publications, such as the National Catholic Reporter and Relevant Magazine, the Wall Street Journal reported. While the group intends to focus on key swing states, especially Ohio, Michigan and Colorado, it will also run ads in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Missouri and North Carolina.

"You know it's an election year when certain people start grabbing headlines by attacking the faith of presidential candidates, with all these stones being cast at Barack Obama it can be hard to know what to believe," the advertisement says. It includes a clip of Obama saying, "I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the role of faith in people's lives."

The Matthew 25 Network's first radio ad was immediately criticised by Dobson, who called the ad "highly seductive." Dobson and his radio co-host "spent several minutes discussing the ad and hurling accusations of dishonesty at Obama," Michael Sean Winters pointed out in America, a national Catholic weekly publication.

As a way of combating "false and misleading information about Senator Obama's record on a number of vital issues," the Matthew 25 Network has also established a website named PutAwayFalsehood.com.

Not all progressives are convinced that the Matthew 25 Network represents an authentic religious left. The Network is essentially "functioning on behalf of centrist elements in the Democratic Party and the party's candidate for president," Fred Clarkson the founder of the blog Talk2Action, told IPS in an e-mail interview. "It is part of a broader effort by these same elements to control the narrative of the role of religion in public life."

Clarkson, the editor of a forthcoming book titled 'Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America', says that while the Matthew 25 Network is "certainly opposed to the religious right," it nevertheless is a "creature of the Inside-the-Beltway political consultant class, and doesn't "represent an authentic expression of the religious left."

'Dispatches from the Religious Left', Clarkson pointed out, is a book of essays "that generally rejects the narrow and conservatively slanted approach to religion and politics" that he says is being promoted by groups like the Matthew 25 Network. "No one knows what an authentic, more politically dynamic religious left in America would really be like," Clarkson says. "This book seeks to open up that conversation."