Religious Fallout over Recent Obama Comments

Evangelical leader James Dobson recently criticized Sen. Barack Obama's interpretations of Biblical scripture. In this week's Faith Matters, political science professor Laura Olson, author of the book Religion and Politics, discusses why some in the faith community are taking issue with Obama.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We have more now about the intersection of faith and politics. Senator Barack Obama's campaign has been noted for its outreach to the faith community. For decades that's been considered a Republican stronghold, but some conservative Christian leaders are having none of it. This week, Dr. James Dobson excoriated Obama on his focus on the family radio program for distorting the bible. Obama shot back that Dobson was making stuff up. Here to talk more about this is Laura Olson. She's a professor of political science at Clemson University and the author of "Religion and Politics in America: Faith, Culture, and Strategic Choices." Welcome, thank you for speaking with us.

Prof. LAURA OLSON (Political Science, Clemson University, Author of "Religious and Politics in America: Faith, Culture, and Strategic Choice"): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: First, I just want to set the table a little bit for folks who may not know what we're talking about. What set this off is a speech that Senator Obama gave to a group called Renewal in June of 2006. Here's a tiny little bit.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is OK and that eating shellfish is an abomination? Or we could go with Deuteronomy which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith. Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount? A passage that is so radical, that it is doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application.

MARTIN: In response, James Dobson said this.

Mr. JAMES DOBSON (Evangelical Leader): I think he's deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the bible to fit his own world view, his own confused theology.

MARTIN: So, Prof. Olson, I wanted to ask, is this an argument about doctrine or is this an argument about politics?

Prof. OLSON: You know, I think it's both. I think on the surface it's an argument about doctrine. It's sort of a statement that, you know, a conservative sort of interpretation of scripture isn't quite in line with what Senator Obama is offering. But I think even more profoundly below the surface what it is, is sort of a statement that well, you know what, the political upshot of interpreting theology in this sort of way is not going to be sort of in line with the way James Dobson would want to see religion and politics intersect.

MARTIN: In the speech Senator Obama made the argument that when people of faith want to translate their values into public policy that they have an obligation to use universal language so that they can reach out across faith lines. What's so wrong with that?

Prof. OLSEN: Hey, you know, I - it's a tough question really, in a lot of ways. I mean I -what current survey data suggest is that many, many Americans would have no problem with that sort of interpretation. I think what Dobson is trying to do is suggest that perhaps that would be an approach that religious right adherents wouldn't want to take. But even more importantly trying to suggest that if you take this kind of approach, that is more universal, that is more ecumenical, what that ends up doing is taking issues like abortion, which of course has been the cornerstone of the religious right movement, and moving that down the chain a few steps. And I think it's really that, that seems to be concerning Dobson the most.

MARTIN: Who do you think James Dobson's remarks are intended to persuade?

Prof. OLSEN: I think the most important core audience for him that he would be trying to persuade isn't, sort of, his everyday listener. His everyday listener, for the most part, those folks aren't going to jump over and vote for Obama. They're either going to stay home, or they're going to vote for McCain, or they're going to vote for Bob Barr. They're probably not going to vote, very many of them, for Obama. I think though that the more important group that he's trying to reach would be the, sort of, occasional listener, the more, sort of, moderate to progressive evangelical who might be, at this point in time, thinking, wow, you know, I really like Obama.

There's something about his candidacy that attracts me, there's something about the way he talks about faith, and the way he ties that to emerging issues like immigration, the environment, etcetera, that is attractive. And Dobson, I think, is trying to suggest to that constituency that hey, maybe you should take a moment and rethink this. Obama's pro-choice, and if you're a good evangelical you probably are not.

MARTIN: But, you know, Mr. Dobson had problems with John McCain earlier in the season. He had not been particularly warm toward John McCain. Is he then putting the pressure on John McCain to declare himself doctrinally?

Prof. OLSEN: Yes, I think he is. I absolutely do. Because in that very same radio program Dobson goes after McCain as well. And it's not like there's any love lost between those two. And Dobson is standing by, as far as I can see, his statement earlier this year that he'd never vote for McCain. So I sense very much that Dobson and other, sort of, old school, old guard, religious right leaders are very unhappy with both choices before them.

MARTIN: I'm asking you to speculate a bit, but then how does this play out? If you've got two candidates who - there is a third party choice here, Ralph Nader, who I presume is really not a part of the conversation for the evangelicals, sort of, per se. So what do they do? Is there really a realistic possibility that evangelical leaders really will opt out of the process this - or evangelicals will opt out of the process this year?

Prof. OLSEN: I think some of them will. I do think some of them will. One thing to remember about 2004 is the Bush-Cheney campaign very explicitly and intentionally targeted evangelicals. So their turnout was - I mean, it wasn't higher than - you know, way higher than any other group, but it was certainly very healthy. If the McCain campaign isn't doing that same sort of outreach, and right now they're definitely not, just naturally you're going to see I think a little bit lower turnout. You also don't have defense and marriage amendments on a bunch of ballots this time around, like you did four years ago.

MARTIN: Issues which might be of particular interest to conservative Christians.

Prof. OLSEN: Oh, absolutely yes. And so there's not really going to be as much explicitly mobilizing them to get out to vote for the Republicans. And Obama of course knows this. And Obama and his campaign are very astute in the sense that they're trying to reach out, not to, sort of, the far right evangelical, but to a more moderate sort of evangelical. And trying and just peel off maybe another five to ten percent of the evangelical vote than Kerry got four years ago.

MARTIN: OK. We'll see, we have to leave it there. Let's check back in and see as the campaign progresses. Laura Olsen is a professor of Political Science at Clemson University and the author of "Religion and Politics in America, Faith, Culture and Strategic Choices". She joined us from her home in Greenville, South Carolina. Thank you so much.

Prof. OLSEN: Thank you.

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