In a June 29 column discussing Sen. Barack Obama's (D-IL) recent speech at the 26th General Synod of the United Church of Christ, Washington Post columnist and former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson wrote that "Obama still missed an opportunity. By speaking at a gathering of the United Church of Christ -- among the most excruciatingly progressive of Protestant denominations -- he was preaching to the liberal choir. And he did not effectively reach out to an evangelical movement in transition." Gerson added that "to appeal broadly to religious voters, he will need to be more than the candidate of the religious left." At no point did he note that Obama spoke at a popular evangelical event on an issue that Gerson identified as important to young evangelicals. The Los Angeles Times reported on December 24, 2006, that "at the invitation of Rick Warren, Obama spoke to a hall full of conservative Christian evangelical activists gathered at Saddleback Church in Orange County. Warren, author of the bestseller 'The Purpose Driven Life,' [Zondervan, 2002] is among the most successful and popular preachers in the world."
Gerson cited "John Green of the Pew Forum" in writing that "evangelicals under 30 tend to be more concerned about the environment than are their elders, more engaged in international issues such as HIV-AIDS, a little more open on homosexual rights and less attached to the religious right." However, as Media Matters for America has noted, Warren's event at which Obama spoke was an AIDS conference, precisely one of the issues Green identified as being of importance to young evangelicals. Defending his invitation for Obama to appear at the AIDS conference, Warren issued a statement in which he asserted: "Our goal has been to put people together who normally won't even speak to each other. We do not expect all participants in the Summit discussion to agree with all of our Evangelical beliefs. However, the HIV/AIDS pandemic cannot be fought by Evangelicals alone. It will take the cooperation of all -- government, business, NGOs and the church."
Further, during his United Church of Christ speech, Obama specifically singled out Warren's work for praise:
But I'm hopeful because I think there's an awakening taking place in America. People are coming together around a simple truth -- that we are all connected, that I am my brother's keeper; I am my sister's keeper. And that it's not enough to just believe this -- we have to do our part to make it a reality. My faith teaches me that I can sit in church and pray all I want, but I won't be fulfilling God's will unless I go out and do the Lord's work.
That's why pastors, friends of mine like Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes and organizations like World Vision and Catholic Charities are wielding their enormous influence to confront poverty, HIV/AIDS, and the genocide in Darfur. Religious leaders like my friends Rev. Jim Wallis and Rabbi David Saperstein and Nathan Diament are working for justice and fighting for change. And all across the country, communities of faith are sponsoring day care programs, building senior centers, and in so many other ways, taking part in the project of American renewal.
From the June 29 Washington Post:
Sen. Barack Obama's speech on religion and politics this month lacked this kind of sparkling clarity, but it had virtues of its own. He spoke frankly of his faith: "I learned that my sins could be redeemed. I learned that those things I was too weak to accomplish myself, He would accomplish with me if I placed my trust in Him." Obama recognized the central role of religion in the history of American social reform, from women's rights to the abolition of slavery to the civil rights movement. And he made a sophisticated distinction between the religious right and American evangelicalism, rather than lumping them together as a monolithic menace.
For Democrats, the speech was a class in remedial religion. But Obama still missed an opportunity. By speaking at a gathering of the United Church of Christ -- among the most excruciatingly progressive of Protestant denominations -- he was preaching to the liberal choir. And he did not effectively reach out to an evangelical movement in transition.
John Green of the Pew Forum describes that transition in generational terms. Survey research shows that evangelicals under 30 tend to be more concerned about the environment than are their elders, more engaged in international issues such as HIV-AIDS, a little more open on homosexual rights and less attached to the religious right. This should provide an opening for Democrats. But there is evidence, according to Green, that young evangelicals are as conservative on abortion as their parents and grandparents, if not more so.
Obama is clearly more fluent on religious issues than most in his party. But to appeal broadly to religious voters, he will need to be more than the candidate of the religious left.