Evangelicals Up For Grabs? Candidates Court Voters

On Aug. 16, Barack Obama and John McCain will appear together at Rick Warren's Saddleback Valley Community Church in Lake Forest, Calif. Joint appearances by the presumed nominees of the major parties are rare, and this one shows that both parties are working hard to court the votes of white evangelical Christians.

This year, there's been a role reversal in the competition for those voters. Now, it's the Democrat who is comfortable quoting Scripture and talking openly about his beliefs.

"When working as a community organizer with other churches, helping to build struggling neighborhoods, I let Jesus Christ into my life. I learned that my sins could be redeemed," Obama said.

John McCain is more reluctant to talk about his own faith. And he has had rocky relations with religious conservatives. But McCain is a believer, and he has a powerful story about the time his own faith was tested — when he was being tortured as a prisoner of war.

One Christmas morning, he was allowed out of his cell for a few moments. As he stood alone in the prison courtyard, one of the Vietnamese guards — who had shown some small kindness to McCain in the past — walked up to him.

"Then with his sandal, the guard drew a cross in the dirt," McCain said. "We stood wordlessly there for a minute or two, venerating the cross, until the guard rubbed it out and walked away. To me, that was faith: a faith that unites and never divides, a faith that bridges unbridgeable gaps in humanity. It is the faith that we are all equal and endowed by our creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is the faith I would die to defend."

'Mainstream' Man Of Faith

That story is often about all the Arizona senator will say about his faith, much to the chagrin of his evangelical supporters.

Obama, however, is making an all-out push to court religious voters. The Illinois senator has promised to expand President Bush's faith-based initiative. During the primaries, the senator distributed leaflets with headings like "Committed Christian" and "Called to Christ."

"Their efforts to show Obama to be a religious man are not subtle," said Steve Waldman, the founder and editor-in-chief of Beliefnet, a Web site dedicated to spirituality. Waldman said Obama's emphasis on faith is even more aggressive than that of President Bush, but that it's not entirely aimed at religious voters.

"If Obama can show himself to be a person of faith, it also helps him combat the idea that he's an elitist, that he's not a mainstream American. Because if he shows that he prays and he's a churchgoing guy and he's a religious guy, that's a very mainstream characteristic," Waldman said.

The irony of a liberal Democrat showcasing his faith is not lost on Gary Bauer, a leading conservative religious activist.

"Let me just point out all the things that, when Republicans do them, your colleagues in the media are all over them for exploiting religion, and yet when Obama does it, it's considered refreshing, and he's competitive," Bauer said.

A Volatile Mix

Religion and politics can be a combustible mix. For McCain, it has sometimes been an exploding cigar.

This year, McCain accepted the endorsement of fundamentalist pastors Rod Parsley and John Hagee. But McCain had to reject their endorsements after it was discovered that Parsley had called Islam evil, and after Hagee said the Holocaust was part of God's plan for the Jews.

"I didn't attend their church for 20 years, and I'm not a member of their church. I received their endorsement, which did not mean that I endorsed their views. But the comments made most recently by Pastor Hagee are just too much," McCain said in a statement at the time.

In that statement, McCain was reminding voters about the 20 years Obama spent in a Chicago church led by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose many controversial remarks included accusations that the government created the AIDS epidemic to kill blacks.

Obama had to cut his ties to Wright, saying the minister's comments "were not only divisive and destructive, but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate."

Closing The Gap

The Wright episode planted seeds of doubt about Obama in the minds of many voters, and the rejection of Hagee and Parsley reopened the old wounds between McCain and evangelicals.

But Richard Land, a Southern Baptist leader, says McCain still has a good chance with those voters.

"What I hear a lot from Southern Baptist pastors and lay people ... is a variation of this sort of theme: 'John McCain was not my first choice, John McCain was not my second choice, but I'll take a third class fireman over a first class arsonist.' And when it comes to the issue of life, when it comes to the issue of marriage, they perceive Barack Obama as a first class arsonist," Land said.

Land thinks that, in the end, evangelicals will vote for McCain. But Bauer worries about something else: McCain needs a committed army of volunteers — the kind President Bush found in the evangelical community four years ago. Bauer said he sends out an e-mail to a quarter-million Christian activists every day.

"I've noticed in the feedback from my own daily reports, that if I go back three months ago, there was a large number of people saying, 'Gary, there's just no way I can do this.' And now people are saying, 'We've got to elect him,' and 'How do I volunteer?' So that gap is going to close, too. But whether it closes quickly enough over the next hundred days remains to be seen," Bauer said.

A 'Humble' Outreach

In 2004, President Bush got 78 percent of the evangelical vote. John Kerry got only 22 percent. Right now, Waldman said, polls show McCain has about 60 percent — about 10 points behind where Bush was at this point in 2004; Obama has about 25 percent, a little better than where Kerry ended up.

"What the polls are showing in terms of evangelicals is that John McCain has lost a bunch of them compared to George Bush, but that Barack Obama has not yet gotten them. ... He has an opportunity that Democrats haven't had in a long time, but he has not yet succeeded in bringing them over," Waldman said.

At least some of these voters are up for grabs. And in the next few weeks, Obama will be stepping up his efforts to get them. He'll launch a new outreach project aimed at younger evangelicals with community service projects, house parties and Christian rock concerts.

"We're pretty humble in this outreach. We certainly don't plan on winning outright the evangelical vote ... but we do believe that more Americans of faith, including evangelicals and modern mainline Protestants and modern conservative Catholics, will give Senator Obama a hard look and will end up supporting him," said Joshua DuBois, Obama's national director of religious affairs.

No one expects Obama to even get half the evangelical vote. But just breaking 30 percent would be a kind of miracle for a Democrat. The last Democrat to do so was Bill Clinton, a Southern Baptist who got 32 percent of the white evangelical vote. It may not be a coincidence that he was also the last Democrat elected president.

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