With the Obama Election, Evangelicals Seek a Role as Faith in Politics Enters Historic Era

November 30, 2008

Mickey Sheridan is in denial. In the weeks since the election of Barack Obama, the 58-year-old self-professed “holy roller” refuses to acknowledge the Illinois senator will soon be inaugurated as America’s 44th president.

“I just can’t believe it,” Sheridan says, shaking his head in exasperation. “I thought surely, somehow all the news reports and polls would be wrong and that people would eventually realize that this man has no business being president.
“I’m in mourning.”
And yet Sheridan feels torn. He celebrates the presidential election of a black man, applauding it as a positive step forward in American history, but cringes at the thought of what a socially progressive Obama administration might mean for abortion and gay marriage — issues Sheridan vehemently opposes.
“I feel like my faith is being tested,” Sheridan says. “Obama may not have gotten my vote, and he won’t get much of my support. But as a Christian, I’ll keep him in my prayers.”
Though they make up a small portion of the American population — roughly 7 percent — evangelicals have been a force in modern politics with their issues, influence, rhetoric, theology and high voter-turnout capturing the imagination of the national media while commanding the attention of political campaigns.
Because Obama has spoken about being pro-choice and because he did not regularly attend church growing up, evangelicals opposed his campaign.
Nationally, 74 percent of evangelicals voted for John McCain, who garnered approximately 1.5 million more votes from evangelicals than Bush won in 2004.
And the way evangelicals voted differed from virtually every other demographic group. A Barna Group poll found that 40 percent of evangelicals chose their presidential candidate based on his position on “moral issues” such as abortion and gay rights, as compared with 9 percent of other voters.
But when the economic tailspin snatched headlines away from these wedge issues, it ultimately spelled doom for the McCain campaign, says Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
“Ever since the stock market crashed, I expected McCain to lose,” Land says. “That was pretty much the end … an Obama victory was assured.”
And yet most religious leaders, including Land, concede that it was Obama rather than McCain who spoke more comfortably and openly about his faith and how it shaped his ideologies. In an August letter to Time magazine, Obama discussed how he began his Christian journey more than 20 years ago as a young man fresh out of college.
“And since that time, I’ve been serious not only about deepening my relationship with Christ but also about the way that all Americans can live together in our diverse, pluralistic society,” he wrote.
In the wake of Obama’s historic election, many evangelicals felt lost and disillusioned. And while it’s unlikely they will relax their positions on certain moral issues, Land suggests that Christian conservatives give their newly elected president a chance in hope he will listen to their concerns.
“We’re going to support him when we can,” he says. “We’re going to work with him when we can. We’ll try to persuade him when we disagree. And if we can’t persuade him, we’ll exercise our constitutional rights to openly disagree and make those disagreements known.”
It was in this spirit of open communication that Land, along with nearly two dozen conservative and progressive Christian leaders, sent an open letter to Obama offering advice and challenging the president-elect to put forth a new moral agenda for the nation.
The letters were solicited by the progressive Christian network Sojourners.
Land’s letter, titled “Abortion Reduction Key to Common Ground,” first congratulates Obama for his election and the promise it gives to future generations. Land then requests Obama’s support for an initiative known as the Pregnant Women Support Act, which he believes can help to reduce abortions by 95 percent over the next 10 years.
Writing the letter was simply the biblical thing to do, Land says. It was also a way of soothing some of the lingering bitterness of those evangelicals who did not vote for Obama.
“It’s meant to offer some guidance,” Land says. “We don’t want to behave the way a lot of people behaved toward President Bush. That was unbiblical. We resented it and didn’t want to treat our new president that way.”
While it’s the defeat of the evangelicals that’s commanded the most media attention, Obama’s election was a victory for what Newsweek columnist Lisa Miller calls a “coalition of others of faith” which includes African-American churchgoers, Latinos and mainline Protestants.
“The pro-Obama faithful represent a wild diversity of the American religious experience,” Miller writes. “(The) church-shoppers, the curious, the spiritual but not religious, the intermarried, the community-minded, the intellectually provoked but skeptical and the traditionalists.
“Indeed, it includes almost every committed person of faith ITAL except ITAL those whose church culture insists on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”
People like Judy Townsend.
“I voted my heart,” says the 39-year-old married mother of four. “For the first time in a long time, I was excited. I felt like God was calling this man. I know a lot of people won’t agree, but I have faith that this will be a change for the better.
“That’s how God works.”
Townsend avoids labels like liberal, evangelical or Christian conservative because of the way she feels media reports have marginalized people of faith. What she does agree with is the idea that Obama’s election singles a shift in the relationship between religion and politics.
“I think we’ve learned the hard way,” she says, pausing for a long, quiet moment, “that there are things that people need to be passionate about besides just abortion and gay marriage.
“A lot of Christians don’t want to hear that, but we need to broaden our focus.”
In the wake of the election, much has been made of the emergence of the so-called “religious left” — people of faith who are politically moderate and religiously progressive. These are generally democrats whose focus has drifted away from abortion and gay marriage and toward the environment, poverty, homelessness and the anti-war movement.
This shift has been heralded not only as the catalyst for the Obama victory but also as a death blow to its alternative in the Christian right — both of which proponents on either side agree is a media-driven exaggeration.
But as the dust settles, those on the left aspire to do away with labels in favor of a community of faith, says Adam Taylor, senior political director for Sojouners.
“We hope Obama realizes that the faith community is not monolithic,” Taylor says. “It continues to invite a range of perspectives, including those that disagree with his policy positions. And we hope that he respects and invites the prophetic role of the church in helping create new possibilities … a moral will that can eventually give way to a political will.”
As for the future of faith in politics, Taylor is optimistic.
“This could be a new moment for all people of faith,” he says. “We have an opportunity to bridge many divides.”
Source: The Anniston Star

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