Political Hay

Religiously Returning to 2004

While the president may have rediscovered religion this year the religious vote is not moving his way.

By 11.1.12

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A recent article from CNN's religion blog describes President Obama's increasingly more personal religious faith over the course of his presidency.

"His faith has been growing as the challenges of the presidency have become more naturally the main part of his own everyday life," declares Florida megachurch pastor Joel Hunter of the president. He regularly prays with Obama, sometimes on a conference call with other mostly evangelical clergy, including Houston United Methodist megachurch pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell, who was close to President George W. Bush. Also reputedly spiritually influential is Joshua DuBois, a young Pentecostal minister who directs the White House faith-based office.

Unmentioned in the article is the rumor that Obama's mother-in-law, who lives in the White House, is herself devout and has prayed for increased faith by her son-in-law. If true, more power to her.

Whatever the influences, it would be unusual if Obama has not grown more religious during his presidency. Many of his predecessors have. And it would be inhuman not to crave spiritual solace amid such pressures. Of course it's also politically smart to develop ties to influential clergy, especially among evangelicals, who are America's largest religious demographic.

But there's no evidence that Obama's evangelical ties and more personal references to religion have affected how evangelicals or other traditional religious voters will vote. According to the latest Pew poll, 76% of white evangelicals support Mitt Romney and only 17% back Obama. About 26% had supported Obama in 2008, sparking hopes of a breakthrough for the Evangelical Left. But Romney, despite his Mormonism and mostly silence about social issues that energize many evangelicals, seems on his way to attaining the soaring 79% that Bush got in 2004.

Increased religious support for Republicans isn't confined to evangelicals. Sixty percent of white Mainline Protestants told Pew they're backing Romney, versus 35% percent for Obama. In 2008 Obama got about half of Mainliners, supposedly heralding an end to historic Mainline Republican preference. Fifty-four percent of white Catholics told Pew they favor Romney, compared to 40 percent for Obama. Weekly churchgoers of all races collectively favor Romney by 55% to 38%, continuing the "God Gap" favoring Republicans. Sixty-six percent of the now much discussed religiously unaffiliated back Obama.

The implosion of religious support for Obama is reflected in the minimal enthusiasm expressed for his campaign now versus the excitement of 4 years ago. Evangelical Left icon Jim Wallis of Sojourners had greeted Obama's ascendancy almost messianically. "My prayers for decades have been answered in this minute," he gushed at the inauguration. Once a shrill critic of America, Wallis then announced that with Obama in power America is "a better country than I thought it was." And he boasted of ties to the new Administration. "This White House wants our advice," he surmised early on. "Leaders from the faith community have been virtually inhabiting the offices of the Transition Team over the last weeks, with our advice being sought on global and domestic poverty, human rights, criminal justice, torture, faith-based offices, foreign policy, Gaza and the Middle East. A staffer joked one day, ‘We should have just gotten all of you bunks here.'"

In stark contrast, Wallis has been far more somber this election cycle. "Remember what was in the political air during the fall campaign for the 2008 presidential election -- the feelings of hope and the possibility for real change?" he recently asked. "Doesn't that seem like a very long time ago now?" Without directly criticizing Obama, Wallis has lamented the absence of rhetoric about the poor and the environment amid little regret over "unnecessary and wrong wars." Boasts over killing Osama bin Laden must make Wallis, who is pacifist, cringe. With a tinge of ennui, Wallis has somewhat apathetically concluded: "It's time to apply the lessons we have learned about not ultimately trusting in candidates, and certainly not in parties, for the changes we need."

Others on the Evangelical and wider Religious Left seem to share Wallis' ambivalence although doubtless still voting for Obama. Groups like "Nuns on the Bus" are happy to robustly denounce Paul Ryan and his ostensibly parsimonious budget plan without equal gusto for the Democratic alternative. Longtime chief of Evangelicals for Social Action Ron Sider, a patriarch of the Evangelical Left, admitted in his recent column about the election that both candidates fall short of his "completely pro-life agenda." And he concluded: "So who does God want us to vote for? I honestly do not know."

Tony Jones, a popular liberal evangelical blogger, recently reposted his endorsement of Obama from 4 years ago without offering a lot of fresh justification. "I still have faith in the president," he added this time. "But I was sure that Hillary would have been too divisive, and now I'm not so sure…"

Many religious idealists on the Left hoped Obama would usher in a new post partisan age. But the culture wars continue, now joined by fierce strife over America's economic future, amid the grim realization that the War on Terror, however named, goes on indefinitely. The religious electoral fault lines have largely returned to 2004, which is probably not good news for the president's reelection.

 

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.