God-talk in the presidential election (or why evangelicals are voting for Barack)

by Dr. Lynn Schofield Clark

When it’s time for politics in the U.S., it seems, it’s also time to talk about religion. So first there were stories of Huckabee’s success among evangelicals, and then there was the quelched rumor about Obama’s supposed connections with Islam (he is a member of the United Church of Christ, a liberal Christian denomination). Hillary Clinton received fewer stories about her Methodist faith, although she did speak of it at the Global Summit on AIDS at a large California megachurch pastored by Rick Warren (best selling author of “The Purpose-Driven Life”), according to one story.

By far the most religion-and-politics coverage so far has gone to Huckabee.

Indeed, Adelle Banks of the Religion News Service wrote a nice piece suggesting that Mike Huckabee could be a “Republican Kingmaker” due to his ability to appeal to the “new center” of the evangelical movement, which she characterized as interested not only in the sanctity of life, but also in environmental preservation. But will Huckabee support McCain? Will party loyalty trump religious concerns? Or could such an endorsement undermine Huckabee’s rise in the evangelical center?

These are certainly relevant questions that will be examined in coming months, but I think there are puzzles yet to come. Let’s begin with the election in 2006, which saw an upswing in evangelicals voting for Democrats in national and local elections. What is one to make of that, given the strength and influence of the Religious Right in the years since Ronald Reagan took office? And could this actually mean that evangelicals could go with the Democrats this time around? I think that’s a distinct possibility.

Mike Huckabee was never taken very seriously by the press, but he did make one statement about a month ago that I found quite compelling. He pointed out that even though McCain took an early lead in delegates, Huckabee was the one with the clear lead among evangelicals in the states that traditionally vote Republican in the national election: Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas. This, he suggested, may not bode well for McCain come election day.

To understand why we may see a surprising split along religious rather than party lines, I think we need to get a better handle on what this word “evangelical” means.

In the U.S., we sociologists tend to use “evangelical” to refer to the large group of people who believe in the importance of what they would call a “personal experience” of faith. Usually, this means a belief that one has to “know” Jesus Christ, which for many leads to an emphasis on the importance of the stories of Jesus that are collected in the New Testament. The word evangelical is also associated with the belief that it’s important to “share” one’s faith with others, or to be willing to let others know the difference that faith makes in one’s life decisions. Evangelicals tend to agree that such “sharing” should happen as a natural part of relationships, and increasingly they leave the door-knocking to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and to the fundamentalists, the street-corner signs of doom. But this is why it’s important to these constituents for any candidate to use “God language” when talking about why they do what they do. Notice that both Hillary and Barack are using this “God language;” So far, John McCain is not.

“Evangelical” covers a wide swath, actually. First, there are the Southern Baptists, usually assumed to be among the most conservative of evangelicals. But in fact, the more conservative Southern Baptists would definitely prefer the term fundamentalist, distancing themselves entirely from evangelicalism (think Jerry Falwell). Mike Huckabee is a Southern Baptist who gladly takes the mainstream evangelical mantle, but they’re certainly not all strictly Republicans. Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Jimmy Carter, and even journalist Bill Moyers are all Southern Baptists.

Then there are the Wesleyans, those who identify with personal piety but also harbor a populist, pro-worker strain: think early 19th century U.S. immigrants from northern Europe (UK, Scots, Irish), Andrew Jackson’s base of support in the then-brand-new Democratic party. (here’s a great story idea: compare Obama’s religious appeal to that of Jackson. But I’m getting ahead of myself).

Next would be the Calvinists and the Reformists (largely English, Scotch, Dutch, and central European), who emphasize the capacity for people to engage in acts that are hurtful to others and their need both to be forgiven and to work to repair damaged relationships (this is humanity’s “total depravity”). While this might seem a hotbed of opportunity for those voting on “moral values,” it might be worth noting that the stronghold of Calvinists are historically located in – surprise! – New England and New York. Over the years, folks in the older, mainline tradition parts of Calvinism and Reform have tended to shy away from the fervor of evangelicalism. This is where Hillary’s tradition would fit. It’s also a tradition that honors the need for humans to take responsibility to help restore God’s creation to what God intended – a view that fits rather well with current pro-environment sentiments.

Then there are the Pentecostals, who favor emotional response in worship and whose practices cross ethnic lines more easily than most. With its roots in the beginnings of the 20th century (and with some historical connections to Wesleyan holiness traditions), it was (and remains) a rare location for racially integrated worship experiences that included both blacks and whites. It’s now the fastest-growing faith tradition among Latinos in the U.S. and in South America, and one of the fastest-growing in the world. 15% of US Latinos say they are Pentecostal. Like the Calvinists and Wesleyans, they believe in the importance of the Bible and in the sinful nature of humans. But by and large they place a greater emphasis on emotional, spiritual experiences in worship. God-talk is key here, of course.

Then there are the National Baptists, comprising the largest group of Black churches in the U.S. They have some points of agreement with evangelicals and moderate Southern Baptists but not fundamentalists, since the roots of the Southern Baptist church were in the pro-slavery days of the Civil War. Given the long history of the church as the center of Black communities, this branch of evangelicalism has always resonated with stories of the downtrodden and oppressed who can overcome difficulties through faith, family, and neighborhood. Barack speaks out of this tradition to some extent, as a result of his experiences working with church and community groups in the urban centers of Chicago.

Evangelicals tend to be anti-abortion and against gay marriage, although they may differ in how they see the role of the state in these issues. But poverty, fighting AIDS in Africa, and protecting the environment have all emerged as important issues among evangelicals, as well. And what’s key to any of these issues for evangelicals is how a candidate is able to present himself or herself as a person of integrity, who operates based on a set of beliefs that are recognizably Christian and does not characterize all Christians as “right-wing ideologues.” Take a look at this speech by Barack Obama for a classic example of this approach. Here, he talks about how he worked with church groups involved in community organizing and came to feel that there was “something missing” in his own life, which led him back to church (note the “personal experience” of faith language). He talks about the African American religious tradition in which the church spurs positive social change. He acknowledges that we are all sinners in need of forgiveness and guidance, and notes that the government cannot fix moral problems (thus addressing the sense on the part of some that Democrats favor government answers to all social issues). And then in a stroke of genius, he differentiates himself from “the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons and Alan Keyes” who would speak for all Christians, emphasizing the need for us as a country to be able to “reconcile the beliefs of each with the good of all.”

Evangelicals are not fundamentalists; many would resist the idea that they want to impose their worldviews on others. Many are now struggling to figure out how to live in a religiously and culturally plural culture, and this kind of talk from Barack not only resonates with their sense of integrity, but it also appeals to their desire to find ways to live together less divisively. I don’t think Barack has a prayer with the fundamentalists. But I think he’s definitely striking a chord among evangelicals.

I think there is a great deal of nuance that’s getting missed in the stories of politics and religion, and I imagine that once again, the press and pundits will be surprised when evangelicals don’t vote for John McCain even if he wins important endorsements from evangelical leaders or selects an evangelical running mate. As for the evangelical vote, I think Barack’s the one to watch.

Dr. Lynn Clark is an Assistant Professor at the University of Denver’s Department of Mass Communications, where she teaches courses for aspiring journalists, journalism educators, and media researchers in media studies, new media, media history, civic engagement, service learning, qualitative (interview-based) research methods, and the music industry. She’s also Director of the Estlow International Center for Journalism and New Media, where she directs research teams and spends a lot of time writing.

5 replies »

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  2. Nice analysis, Lynn. A lot of people out there – and I’m sometimes guilty, as well – usually opt for the nuance-free view that fundie = evangelical. Of course, there’s lots of nuance, and hopefully we can speak a little intelligently from here on out.

  3. Lynn, thanks for taking the time to do this for S&R. As Stewart told me many times, the press does a poor job of covering the basics of religion, let alone its nuances and consequences.

  4. Thanks, Dr. Clark. We’ve got the scorecard. Now we know who the players are.

    Re. . .

    Over the years, folks in the older, mainline tradition parts of Calvinism and Reform have tended to shy away from the fervor of evangelicalism. This is where Hillary’s tradition would fit.

    Her tradition might, but she does’t. See excerpt below from a Mother Jones article that, in part, chronicles her religious wanderings.

    When Clinton first came to Washington in 1993, one of her first steps was to join a Bible study group. For the next eight years, she regularly met with a Christian “cell” whose members included Susan Baker, wife of Bush consigliere James Baker; Joanne Kemp, wife of conservative icon Jack Kemp; Eileen Bakke, wife of Dennis Bakke, a leader in the anti-union Christian management movement; and Grace Nelson, the wife of Senator Bill Nelson, a conservative Florida Democrat.

    Clinton’s prayer group was part of the Fellowship (or “the Family”), a network of sex-segregated cells of political, business, and military leaders dedicated to “spiritual war” on behalf of Christ, many of them recruited at the Fellowship’s only public event, the annual National Prayer Breakfast. (Aside from the breakfast, the group has “made a fetish of being invisible,” former Republican Senator William Armstrong has said.) The Fellowship believes that the elite win power by the will of God, who uses them for his purposes. Its mission is to help the powerful understand their role in God’s plan.