The Common Good

President Obama’s faith challenge at the Democratic convention

Date: September 6, 2012

Last week, former Mass. governor Mitt Romney and the Republican National Convention largely embraced Romney’s Mormon faith, following a well-worn civil religion approach that made general references to God and faith while avoiding the potentially controversial specifics of Mormon theology that clash with his evangelical voter base. This week, as President Obama takes the stage at the Democratic National Convention, he faces a different, but also serious, challenge about how to address his faith while he makes his case for another four years as president.

Like Romney, Obama has faced some challenges on the faith front. As Daniel Cox and I noted in a recent chapter on Obama’s faith in “Religion and the American Presidency,” Obama made his entrance to the national stage with a speech at the 2004 Democratic national convention that was full of religious language, such as traditional biblical allusions (“It is that fundamental belief -- I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sisters’ keeper -- that makes this country work”) and references to contemporary Christian music (“we worship an awesome God in the blue states”). This speech was also remarkable because it broke through at a time when the “values voters” movement was on the rise and Democrats were being lambasted for being perceived as unfriendly to religion.

As a senator in 2006, Obama also delivered a stirring, personal speech about the role of faith in both his private and his public life at a Sojourners/Call to Renewal conference.Commentators rapidly seized on the historic nature of the speech. In a column titled “Obama’s Eloquent Faith,” E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post called it “the most important pronouncement by a Democrat on faith and politics since John F. Kennedy’s Houston speech.”And during the 2008 campaign, the Wall Street Journal noted that the race was shaping up to be an unusual one “in which the presumptive Democratic nominee is talking more openly about his Christian beliefs than the Republican candidate.”