Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Obama and McCain and the evangelical vote

I missed the Open Forum hosted by Rick Warren which puts me in the unique position of commenting on it from utter ignorance. Instead, I've spent more time reading reactions (rather than transcripts), and interpreting them. The question of "Who won?" has prompted the following generalizations:

Obama won: Because he gave thoughtful, nuanced answers to a mostly Republican audience without apologizing for his party's platform. He took his time, was not the impassioned orator of his rallies, but instead offered detailed remarks and looked Rick Warren in the eye as he spoke. He validated the "already Obama fan" evangelical, though it's unclear he won over any of the fence-sitters looking for an unapologetic pro-life stance. Some say he supported Rick Warren's "Whole Life" idea (that we are not to be concerned merely with conception through birth, but the after birth as well).

McCain won: He spoke with deliberateness, spoke concisely, made remarks consistent with the conservative wing of the R party. While detractors said he pandered (didn't actually look at Rick as he spoke etc.), fans felt he nailed the questions with black and white answers suited to his audience. His stories engaged viewers and audience alike, his style showed more confidence and panache than anyone expected. His overall tone didn't just reassure evangelicals who were unenthusiastic about his candidacy; he gave them reasons to vote for him with some level of conviction.

Warren won: Lots of people have said that Warren won - he drew the long stick, getting the two candidates together for the first time in front of the nation. He made his church, his constituency, his worldview a player in the election in a way unprecedented, even when Bush was running away with the evangelical vote.

My take on all this, though, diverges. I'd say the Democratic party won.

Here's why. Evangelicals are no longer a monolithic block. Let's look at how fractured these evangelicals have become. For the last four years, a growing number of malcontents within the evangelical Republican community have voiced their shift in focus from heaven-hell theology to social justice. This shift has enabled formerly hardcore Republicans to consider the party platform of the Democrats. The lack of progress in the laws related to abortion under Republican presidents and a Republican congress has unmasked the "wedge issue" nature of that platform item. Pro-life is a Republican slogan, not a conviction among the powers that be. That means, for the first time since Reagan, committed pro-lifers have had to ask what actually reduces (in real numbers) the abortion rate (not just how can the laws be changed).

Turns out social programs help: inner city education and job training, birth control and health care options do give unwed mothers alternatives to abortion. The party who cares more about that is the Democratic party.

Additionally, the war has become a moral issue for Christians. Can we justify supporting a president and party that lied to the American people to start a war in a sovereign state? Can we keep sending our young people into a civil war that we can't contain or control?

McCain represents more of the same: a commitment to the platform that got George Bush elected. He has even back pedaled on his more moderate positions (he has a record of supporting stem cell research, for instance) in order to provide reassurance to doubting hardcore, xtn Republicans. What he is not calculating is that there is a growing number of evangelicals who don't want to hear the same old answers.

Those evangelicals are interested in Obama. Abortion is the number one stumbling block for those Republicans. They want to believe that a changed view (a Democratic view) of economics, the government's role in social welfare programs, diplomacy over war, and increased taxes would be a more moral vision than the one that's failed them for the last eight+ years. They want to believe that abortions (the real ones, not the theory or laws about them) will go down under a changed model of leadership.

McCain did nothing to reassure those evangelicals. He merely corralled the already hardcore right that he is the next Bush, but with more conviction and better war stories.

For the remaining disaffected, new theology evangelicals (the McClaren followers, the emergents, the college kids who can't relate to Dobson or Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity), Obama represents a risk they are more and more willing to take.

What that means, then, is that the evangelical "base" is fractured. It only takes a small percentage to undermine the "block vote" they once represented. And that is why I say that Warren's open forum was actually a win for Democrats. The truth is, even just hosting it proves the evangelical world has gone through a shift. There is no way in hell (I mean it) that Clinton would ever have been invited to an evangelical church for a conversation with the Republican candidate.

Today, you can say you are voting Obama and not feel that your church membership or salvation are suddenly in question. That's what change means. Proof that evangelicals won't be the key demographic this time.

GObama 08!


Kansas Bob said...

Your thoughts mirror many of mine Julie.. except that I am not yet ready to gObama :)

Rob said...

Good analysis, Julie. I missed the discussion too. I was disappointed that many of the pundits gave the edge to McCain and suggested that Obama didn't connect as well as he could have. Some said that he talked the evangelical talk but that the audience wanted more "black and white," red-meat conservative positions, which they just won't get from him. But it's a win for the Dems in the sense that they were invited into the tent and were able to act like they belong!

Dalissa 365 said...

Well, I did watch the talk, albeit it was probably about 2 am and I was fading near the end of McCain's portion. Anyway, it was the first time I've really taken the time to listen to an interview/talk with McCain and I was struck with how down to earth he sounded. What also struck me, is that his faith in God shown through in a way in which I haven't seen in either Democratic or Republican presidents. Obama, otoh, gave more nuanced and, dare I say it, educated sounding answers. But, due to the fact that he did not really answer any of the questions with short answers (even though Warren had requested short answers for a few), it made him almost seem too campaigny, if you know what I mean. As for what they actually spoke about, they both presented pretty good pictures of their parties platform. I didn't feel like McCain would be the exact replica of Bush but I am sure he would be very similar. As for Obama, Jeff and I both felt that he would perform better as a president in the international scene due to his obvious skills of diplomacy. McCain reminded me of a little boy who dreamed of being president all of his life. He had a childlike quality to him despite his age. At the same time, his age also showed at some points and I think that his life experience would be helpful if he were president. Of course, that doesn't mean I will vote for him. I agreed with parts of what each candidate said and at this point in time, I lean toward thinking the US needs a president who can perform well in the international scene. I guess what seems so odd to me is just how different their personalities are... did the Republican party have any candidate that presented themselves better intellectually?

The audience definitely seemed more supportive of McCain during certain questions but they also cheered for points that Obama made. Whether or not Obama presented what the church audience wanted is neither here nor there for me since the talk was televised and could be seen by more than Warren's church.

rmkton said...

Agree with dalissa 365 regarding how McCain and Obama came off. I think what we are seeing is that, in general, McCain's views resemble modernistic thought, whereas Obama is much more postmodern. You can see this in their responses...and is the reason why McCain may seem more decisive and Obama more open to complexity and therefore maybe not as convincing...however I would point out that Lil' Bush has probably been the most modern president in a long time (even more so that Reagan) and look where that led us.

julieunplugged said...

I would add, though, that McCain played to his immediate audience (in the room) whereas Obama seemed conscious of the TV audience - the moderates, the pro-choice Republicans, the independents who are opposed to a third term Bush!

I think McCain shot himself in the foot with the broader constituency. He may have reassured and rallied some of the evangelical base, but they are not the voters that will make or break this election... thank the Non-Material Layer!

Dalissa 365 said...

Actually, after seeing the talk and various other emails and talks I have had with other people, I am a little worried that McCain actually has a chance. I do not feel he shot himself in the foot although I can see why you would hold that opinion. I think there is still a large segment of Republicans who want to know that the person they are electing will lead a specific way in regard to abortion, stem cell research, and the war. And, I think that percentage is larger than I formally imagined. I have a relative who is pro-McCain from the mid-west and she really opened my eyes to the full extent of the negative propaganda being circulated about Obama. I knew there was smack talk occurring but really had no idea about how much.

I think McCain would've shot himself in the foot had he come off as a blubbering idiot during the talk or only pulling the party line but he didn't sound that way to me.

So, at this point, I think Obama has a significant fight ahead of him. The fact that he can speak intelligently is going to turn a certain segment of the population off just because intelligent and nuanced answers may make them feel like he is untrustworthy. They want things black and white and easily understandable. And, I don't think this is limited to conservative Republicans, either. I am curious to see how it will all play out.

julieunplugged said...

Dalissa, it is a lot closer than I thought it would be. I'm hoping that the DNC will turn the tide. And yes, you are right - so much negative propaganda about him still. I hear it too here in Republican land.

Here's hoping that this is not how we wind up!