Thursday, November 30, 2006

Obama and Evangelicals

Barack Obama is attracting a lot of press right now as the fresh-faced new entry in the Democratic presidential sweepstakes. His barnstorming goodwill tour hit a bump recently: he was invited to speak at a conference on HIV/AIDS at Saddleback, Rick Warren's Southern California megachurch, one of the capitals of evangelicaldom. But due to his pro-abortion-rights record, Obama's scheduled appearance sparked expressions of protest from evangelical leaders, including Phyllis Schlafly.

My sense is that many Democratic observers are skeptical, right out of the gate, of Obama's attempts at outreach to evangelicals, and were quick to read this as a setback for Obama. My off-the-cuff response when I first saw this news item was, Phyllis Schlafly is past her prime, and in a battle of the titans, my money would be on Rick Warren.

Sure enough, Warren responded politely but firmly, and and the bottom line is that Barack Obama is still invited to Saddleback. This article tells us that while Obama is in SoCal he's going to squeeze in an appearance on the Tonight Show. Rick Warren didn't just fall out of a tree, and he would have to be real afraid of Phyllis Schlafly to diss a Tonight Show guest. He's not that afraid of her.

One of my points here, to channel Amy Sullivan for just a moment, is that your average journalist or Democratic politico has a view of evangelicals that's stuck in the past. Writers like Eric Kleefeld attach a lot of weight to names they recognize: Falwell, Schlafly, and Robertson. None of those three is a heavyweight contender anymore. Rick Warren is a contender, Richard Land and James Dobson are contenders. Ted Haggard was a contender until recently.

Another news story that caught my attention this week is that the president-elect of the Christian Coalition has opted not to take the job, because of the resistance he encountered in wanting to broaden the Coalition's focus:

"My position is, unless we are caring as much for the vulnerable outside the womb as inside the womb, we're not carrying out the full message of Jesus," he said in a telephone interview yesterday. "They began to think this might threaten their base or evaporate some of their support, and they said they just couldn't go there."

The Christian Coalition, Pat Robertson's onetime base of operations, is circling the drain. This is because of garden-variety institutional stagnation, and also because (my second point here) pro-life politics are in trouble. (Note the setbacks on Election Day: the abortion referendum in South Dakota, the stem-cell referendum in Missouri.) An overwhelming focus on protecting the unborn and harassing gays, to the exclusion of every other issue, makes the Schlafly types look out of touch and mean. The future of evangelical politics is global humanitarian issues and the environment, and Barack Obama may be onto something.

Update, 12/4/06: The text of Obama's speech at Saddleback

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