A Tactical Leap of Faith

By Michael Gerson
Friday, June 27, 2008

The latest findings of the Pew Forum's massive and indispensable U.S. Religious Landscape Survey reveal some intriguing confusion among Americans on cosmic issues. About 13 percent of evangelicals, it turns out, don't believe in a personal God, leading to a shameful waste of golf time on Sunday mornings. And 9 percent of atheists report that they are skeptical of evolution. Are there atheist creationists?

On the relation of faith to politics, two points stand out in the survey:

First, there is a clear connection between piety -- praying often and attending worship services frequently -- and political conservatism across nearly every religious tradition. Seventy-three percent of evangelicals who attend services at least once a week believe abortion should be illegal in most or all cases; among more loosely affiliated evangelicals, the figure is 45 percent. Jews who pray daily are twice as likely to call themselves political conservatives.

Second, religiously conservative people have more in common with the general public on political issues than some liberals and conservatives assume. Fifty-seven percent of evangelicals agree that "government should do more to help needy Americans, even if it means going deeper into debt." More than half of evangelicals believe that stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost. And though 50 percent of evangelicals still identify themselves as Republicans, that number has declined amid the broader trend of political alienation and restlessness.

Barack Obama's campaign looks at this political diversity and sees opportunity. His advisers report to me that the candidate's evangelical outreach is deeply in earnest -- a long-term personal goal, not a political ploy. Obama is as comfortable with the language of personal religious commitment as was Jimmy Carter -- a facility that usually comes with sincerity. His recent meeting with 30 major religious leaders in Chicago was, by most accounts, a constructive success. His staff has conducted more than 200 American Values Forums -- faith-based town halls -- and plans to hold house parties and dorm meetings on similar themes.

But along with these advantages, Obama has challenges, particularly when it comes to evangelical outreach.

As James Dobson has inartfully pointed out, Obama is not a traditional evangelical when it comes to biblical interpretation and certain moral issues. But this should hardly surprise us, since Obama has never claimed to be. He came to faith in the United Church of Christ, one of America's defining liberal denominations -- the first to ordain women (in 1853) and to endorse same-sex marriage (in 2005). Obama is properly understood as a man of the religious left, in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr. According to a recent poll by Calvin College's Henry Institute, Obama has expanded his appeal among mainline Protestants (who, it is often forgotten, are traditionally Republican). But he also seems determined to call an evangelical bluff: Since you now praise King as a model of religious involvement in politics, you need at least to consider me.

The greatest obstacle to this consideration is abortion. I've seen no good evidence that evangelicals are becoming less pro-life (a previous Pew poll indicated that young evangelicals are actually more pro-life than their elders). To blunt this issue, Obama calls attention to his views on adoption, teen pregnancy and the sacredness of sex. He insists he is open to late-term abortion restrictions, if they are accompanied by broad exceptions for the health of the mother. But when the up-or-down political decisions came, Obama would not support a ban on partial-birth abortion or even legal protections for infants who are born alive after the procedure.

An evangelical vote for Obama requires a large mental adjustment: "I like his views on poverty or torture or climate change, even though he cannot bring himself to oppose the most brutal form of abortion." This may work for some, particularly more loosely affiliated evangelicals. But for most pro-life people, the protection of innocent life is not one issue among many, it is the most basic, foundational commitment of a just society. And John McCain has his own appeal to these voters -- remaining pro-life while opposing torture, addressing climate change and championing human rights in places such as Burma and Sudan. So far, McCain's support among evangelicals is holding up -- a recent poll shows McCain with a three to one advantage over Obama.

In today's environment of discontent and reassessment, a Democratic presidential candidate might achieve a historic political breakthrough with religious voters. Obama has great advantages in this attempt -- except on the issue that matters most.


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