Religion in the Race for the White House

By Becky Garrison 11-04-2008

As part of my coverage of the American Academy of Religion's annual meeting, I attended a day-long workshop titled "Religion in the Race for the White House." Following are a few highlights that I gleaned as food for thought to contemplate on November 4th.

Steve Waldman, founder of Beliefnet, focused on the here and now by addressing the story lines he feels the mainstream media ought to be covering with regards to the role of religion in this presidential election. While many of these points have been made in other God's Politics blog postings leading up to the election, I appreciated Waldman's ability to synthesize what he felt were the key points to ponder.

First, how many Obamagelicals are there? The Obama campaign has reached out to evangelical voters more than any other Democratic candidate with the possibly exception of Jimmy Carter. Literature stating Obama's Christian credentials was circulated in select battleground states even though Democrats have been very critical of past Religious Right efforts for distributing similar material.

In addition to the much predicted split between the older and younger evangelical, for the first time, strong regional differences between evangelicals have begun to emerge. At present, one cannot ascertain the impact this development will have on the current presidential election. Along those lines, despite conservative evangelicals' lack of support for McCain, they feel a kinship with Sarah Palin because they feel that, like Palin, they are "picked on" by the mainstream media.

Since 1968, the winner of the Catholic vote has won every election. This year the economy bears more weight than social issues even among those Catholics who attend mass every week.

In the Protestant camps, McCain's efforts to enlist the evangelical base appear to have backfired among mainline Protestants. This group used to identify with Eisenhower era Republicans but they have been gradually moving toward the center. Latino Protestants, who tend to be very theologically conservative, seem to be shifting from Republican to Democrat in this election over concerns relating to immigration and economics.

The swing group that has arisen during this election is the ever growing number of people who attend church approximately once a month. Also, older Jewish voters seem to be leery of both candidates. In tightly contested state races, these two groups could determine who gets that state's electoral votes.

Since the 2004 election, the number of people affiliated with the Spiritual Left has become approximately the same size as those who identify with the Religious Right. While this group was too loosely organized to have a substantial impact in 2004, they have since become much more coherent, articulate, and organized. For example, the 2008 election marks the first time some Spiritual Left groups ran radio and TV commercials endorsing a presidential candidate.

One of the major ways the Spiritual Left exerted its influence in this election was the move beyond simply giving the Democratic party talking points on matters of faith toward trying to shape the Democratic party platform. One area where this impact has been noticeably influential has been their efforts to push the Democratic party towards the center on abortion.

As evidenced by campaigns such as the Jesus for President tour, one finds a growing shift among evangelicals against becoming overly aligned with one political party. For them, politics is not the way they choose to express their faith. How this group chooses to vote, or if they choose to go to the polls at all, could easily influence the outcome of this election. Hence, I will be looking for signs of Shane Claiborne's imaginative ways of responding to this day, as well as an ongoing discussion regarding how we Christians should respond on November 5th.

For those who feel their vote doesn't matter, I hope Waldman's astute observations will make them think otherwise. The key, as Shane noted, is to pray for how we as Christians should exercise this right, remembering who we ultimately serve.

(Note: For those who want to see a living example of using one's faith to enact massive social change, check out the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell. I have reported elsewhere on this documentary, which I saw at the Tribeca Film Festival. It opens on November 7th in Los Angeles, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Berkeley, Atlanta, St. Louis, Denver, Seattle, and Portland.)

Becky GarrisonBecky Garrison is one of the many voices featured in The Ordinary Radicals documentary.

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