When British author Hilaire Belloc ran for Parliament in 1906, his speech on religion and politics, given to a packed public meeting, went as follows: “Gentlemen, I am a Catholic. As far as possible, I go to Mass every day. This is a rosary. As far as possible, I kneel down and tell these beads every day. If you reject me on account of my religion, I shall thank God that he has spared me the indignity of being your representative.”
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.
Appealing to this group will require a three-step recovery program for Democrats. First, candidates should talk about their own faith and the importance of religion in public life, both of which Obama did well.
Second, Democrats should emphasize common-ground issues that credit the moral concerns of religious conservatives while calming the waves of the culture wars — such as confronting the toxic excesses of popular culture, encouraging character and discipline in public schools, and promoting religious liberty abroad. Obama’s speech showed little creativity on such matters.
Third, leading Democrats could make real policy changes on abortion, by adopting a more moderate position than abortion on demand. Given the current Democratic coalition, this doesn’t seem likely. But some of us still remember the example of Gov. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, whose liberal heart bled for all of the weak, including the unborn.
Obama’s criticism of the religious right for baptizing the agenda of economic conservatism — making tax cuts their highest legislative priority — had some justified sting. But then he proceeded, in the typical manner of the religious left, to give a variety of more liberal causes a similar kind of full-immersion baptism: passing a “universal health care bill,” withdrawing quickly from Iraq, approving comprehensive immigration reform. Agree with these proposals or not, none is a test of true religion.
The whole enterprise — there are examples on the right and left — of asking “What Would Jesus Do?” on the earned-income tax credit or missile defense is presumptuous. Jesus, were he around again in the flesh, would probably be doing sensible things such as healing the sick, embracing outcasts and preaching sacrificial love. After all, he showed little interest in issuing a “Contract With the Roman Empire.” But his followers eventually found that “love your neighbor” had political consequences, leading them to challenge slavery, infanticide and the mistreatment of women and children.
This has been the Christian compromise on faith and politics. The essential humanism of Christianity requires an active, political concern about human dignity and the rights of the poor and weak. But faith says little about the means to achieve those ideals. The justice of welfare reform or tax cuts or moving toward socialized medicine is measured by the outcome of these changes. And those debates cannot be short-circuited by the claim “Thus sayeth the Lord,” spoken by the Christian Coalition or the United Church of Christ.
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.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.