The news is beginning to sink in that Obama has not managed to change the voting preferences of the most religious white voters, evangelicals especially.To explain why Obama’s “much vaunted religious outreach campaign…isn’t working,” pastordan has recourse to the idea that it’s just very difficult to move socially conservative evangelicals. I agree with that, but it’s also worth entertaining the possibility that “much vaunted” is not the same as “out there and effective.” Go past the jump in Michelle Boorstein’s WaPo story about politicking on Christian music stations and you see that the Obama folks have been well behind the McCain folks in that venue. And from what I can gather on my own, outside the orbit of religious progressives, the Obama religious ground game with white Christians has, going back to the primaries, just not been that good. Yes, it’s hard to move values voters.
As of today, some 400 rabbis have signed on with a new organization called Rabbis for Obama. Never before in American history have rabbis gotten together in this way to endorse a presidential candidate, according to Brandeis’s Jonathan Sarma, and he should know. JTA’s got the story. What seems to have driven the rabbis to take this step is the campaign of viral anti-Obama emails targeted at Jewish voters. Their letter’s penultimate paragraph reads:We are fully aware that a smear campaign against Senator Obama has been waged in the Jewish community, and we feel it is our duty as Jewish leaders to fight for the truth and against Lashon Hara.
I’ve been thinking some more about the following passage from Nicholas Kristof’s column this morning:John Green, of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, says that about 10 percent of Americans believe we may be in the Book of Revelation’s “end times” and are on the lookout for the Antichrist. A constant barrage of e-mail and broadcasts suggest that Mr. Obama just may be it.It’s one thing to charge a presidential candidate with being an atheist, as some Federalists charged Thomas Jefferson in 1800; or with taking orders from the pope, as some Protestants charged John F. Kennedy in 1960. Those are both propositions capable of being discussed according to what the philosopher John Rawls called public reason–the common reasoning of all citizens in a pluralist society. We all can weigh the evidence for and against Jefferson’s atheism, for and against Kennedy’s obedience to the pope. But the claim that a presidential candidate is or may be the Antichrist is subject only to nonpublic reason–reasoning among the particular religious community that happens to believe that the End Times are upon us, or could be.
Nicholas Kristof argues in a sharp column in today’s NYT that the underground campaign to make Barack Obama into a Muslim serves as a workaround:What is happening, I think, is this: religious prejudice is becoming a proxy for racial prejudice. In public at least, it’s not acceptable to express reservations about a candidate’s skin color, so discomfort about race is sublimated into concerns about whether Mr. Obama is sufficiently Christian.It’s a good point, but I’d be careful about generalizing it. As Obama himself never fails to point out, he’s got a pretty exotic background; and among its more exotic elements are his non-observant African Muslim father and his somewhat observant Indonesian Muslim stepfather. There’s no shortage of anti-Muslim prejudice in America today, and Obama’s biography (and name, of course) has given it an opening. Is the underground campaign despicable?
At Temple Beth El last night I was struck again by the bitterness and vituperation that Obama provokes in some people. Why should a candidate whose campaign has been built on a rhetoric of bringing people together, who engages in a minimum of personal attack, inspire such antipathy? Back during the primary campaign, the antipathy was evident among certain Clinton supporters. I put it down to the anger of disappointed hopes and to annoyance at Obama’s more enthusiastic followers. But that hardly explains its presence on the GOP side.
Obama admits to Stephanapoulos that his “above my pay grade” response to Rick Warren’s abortion question was “too flip”:“What I intended to say is that, as a Christian, I have a lot of humility about understanding when does the soul enter into … It’s a pretty tough question. And so, all I meant to communicate was that I don’t presume to be able to answer these kinds of theological questions.”
In the ABC interview, Obama goes on to give the answer he wishes he’d given: “What I do know is that abortion is a moral issue, that it’s one that families struggle with all the time. And that in wrestling with those issues, I don’t think that the government criminalizing the choices that families make is the best answer for reducing abortions. “I think the better answer — and this was reflected in the Democratic platform — is to figure out, how do we make sure the young mothers, or women who have a pregnancy that’s unexpected or difficult, have the kind of support they need to make a whole range of choices, including adoption and keeping the child.”
It turns out that America’s leading African-American rabbi, Capers Funnye of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation on Chicago’s South Side, is a first cousin once removed of Michelle Obama. On the case is the Forward, which describes him as “well-known in Jewish circles for acting as a bridge between mainstream Jewry and the much smaller, and largely separate, world of black Jewish congregations, sometimes known as black Hebrews or Israelites.” I’m kind of astonished that Rav Capers hasn’t been put on Obama’s bagel-and-lox circuit long since. Yo, campaign!
Last week, I took Adele Oltman to task for her piece in the Nation arguing that Obama had more in common with Daddy King than his son, MLK, Jr. Oltman has now posted a long response that I find much less problematic, and which is worth a look. Her appreciation of King, Sr.’s contribution is fine; and in the wake of his nomination speech, she is a good deal kindlier toward Obama. She does remain highly dubious of his embrace of faith-based initiatives, and makes the perfectly valid point that policing all church-sponsored social service efforts for any sign of religious influence would effectively be impossible. But my point was simply this: The engagement of black churches in such efforts has been a constant since the civil rights/Great Society era; and MLK, Jr. had no problem with it. The principle was always to establish separate non-profits–e.g. to build senior citizen housing.
For connoisseurs of religion in American public life, last night’s stadium extravaganza offered a couple of tasty morsels. Let me begin with Rev. Joel Hunter’s benediction, which ended with the novelty of asking all attendees to pray in the name of whatever they pray in the name of. Or as he put it:Now I interrupt this prayer for a closing instruction. I want to personalize this. I want this to be a participatory prayer.
Over at the Revealer, Jeff Sharlet is puffing Adele Oltman’s Nation piece on Obama and the Martin Luther Kings, Sr. and Jr. Read it if you must, but I wouldn’t take seriously its claim that Barack Obama is more like Daddy than Dr. King. The suggestion that Obama is advocating some kind of throwback to the days when black churches dominated their communities is just silly, and the suggestion that he is some kind of crypto-theocrat is nonsense. No American politician running for national office has spoken more clearly about the the importance of maintaining the principle of church-state separation. Ottman goes seriously astray in portraying Obama’s support for faith-based initiatives as contrary to the civil right’s leader’s view of things:I’m not sure King would have been comfortable with Obama’s expanded view of faith-based initiatives, which allows for churches to design social programs and make decisions about who has access to them. To the contrary, it was via Great Society programs initiated at the height of the civil rights movement that urban black churches began receiving public funds to undertake (via independent non-profits) a range of social services.
Hat tip to Premil Cindy for calling my attention to this video, which has so far been viewed over half a million times. It was created by Ph For America, an outfit that says it’s “hoping to become the “Swiftboat” 527 organization of 2008.” After clipping the sentences on the Bible from Obama’s 2006 Call to Renewal speech, it has a voice-over assert that Obama “arrogantly mocked and ridiculed the Bible” and charge him with taking those passages “so painfully out of context.” Here’s what Obama said, in its context:Moreover, given the increasing diversity of America’s population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.
Steve Waldman thinks Obama messed up by not making sure that his pro-life religious supporters got more out of the platform committee abortion plank. I’m not so sure. Like it or not, Obama is firmly pro-choice. His opponents are pulling out all the stops to demonstrate that he is not just your run-of-the-mill pro-choice politician, but a true believer–and, indeed, Obama’s got some tough explaining to do to prove otherwise. So rather than engage in a lot of hypocritical talk about the tragedy of abortion, he might be better advised to say:Look, I believe in choice, real choice, for all women.
As you may not have noticed, in making his pitch today that “we are all Georgians,” John McCain called the invaded Caucasian state “one of the first nations on earth to convert to Christianity…it’s been part of the grand sweep that compromises Western civilization.” Well, I suppose that’s one way to look at Christianity. But seriously, as long as we’re choosing allies based on their priority in embracing Jesus, can I put in a good word for Armenia, the very first nation to adopt Christianity as its official religion? On the other hand, the Armenian Apostolic Church is mired in monophysitism–you know, it’s non-Chalcedonian, which means those folks didn’t join in the condemnation of those who rejected Christ’s two natures. So to hell with them.
As the McCain spin machine continues to beat up on Obama for his alleged messianic or prophetic pretensions (I say prophetic, Waldman says undeserved), the worry in a number of black quarters is that Obama is not prophetic enough–or more precisely, that his candidacy threatens to undermine the ability of black America to lift up its voice in that way. Writing about Tavis Smiley in last week’s New Yorker, Kalefa Sanneh offers up this comment of Glenn Loury’s (made in a TPM post after Obama’s speech on race):My fear is that, should Obama succeed with his effort to renegotiate the implicit American racial contract, then the prophetic African-American voice—which is occasionally strident and necessarily a dissident, outsider’s voice—could be lost to us forever. This seems to me a hyperbolic concern. As diverse and visible as the African-American community has become, that dissident outsider’s voice will still be there. The real question when it comes to Obama is whether (if he’s elected) there will be the ears to hear it–among the powers that be, or (perhaps better) the unwashed white majority.
Rep. Steve Cohen’s overwhelming 79-19 victory in Tennessee’s ninth congressional district Democratic primary has got to warm the cockles of even the most cynical journalistic heart. Nikki Tinker’s race- and Jew-baiting ads, designed to encourage voters in the majority-black district to choose one of their own, backfired with a vengeance, as Americans’ rosiest accounts of ourselves say they should have. It did seem that Cohen was headed for a big win regardless. A native Memphian who served many years in the state senate before being elected to Congress, he ran by all accounts an excellent campaign, and was well funded. Tinker was something of an outsider, born and raised in Alabama, and her ads were considered acts of desperation.