Meet the Obamagelicals
Beginning with the Jesus vogue of the early 1970s, evangelical Christianity was seen and heard, then seen and heard again.
During these years, evangelicalism (the label commonly given to the public expression of born-again Christianity) influenced American history in profound, but only partially appreciated, ways. As befits the subject matter, this is something of a story of rebirth. Public evangelicalism gestated in the space created by the Watergate scandal of the early and mid-1970s. Out of that context emerged both a born-again president, Jimmy Carter, and his equally evangelical archnemesis, the Christian Right. The climax came three decades later with the presidency of George W. Bush, who synthesized the former's therapeutic Jesus talk with the latter's political agenda.
Barack Obama had a remarkable ability to attract otherwise rightleaning evangelicals and Catholics who suffered from Bush fatigue. Like Jimmy Carter, he could employ an evangelical tone without supporting specifically evangelical policies. Obama's campaign skills were more comparable to those of Bill Clinton, however. The Illinois senator was as strong a supporter of abortion rights as Clinton or any Democratic nominee since Carter.
Three decades into the alliance of the pro-life movement and the Republican Party, however, Roe v. Wade remained the law of the land. Obama, some pro-life moderates reasoned, was at least willing to talk with them. The resulting goodwill helped him to survive the worst crisis of his primary campaign, the controversy surrounding revelations of past sermons by Jeremiah Wright in which the reverend embraced conspiracy theories and uttered the incendiary rhetorical lines "Not God bless America. God damn America." In one of the sermons in question, dating from 1993, Wright actually paraphrased a Tony Campolo speech criticizing Americans for tolerating global hunger. Wright had joined Campolo in supporting Jim Wallis's Call to Renewal back in 1995. The Wright flap was the most reported political news story over the first four months of 2008 and lingered well beyond Obama's narrow primary upset of Hillary Clinton.
The evangelical left backed Obama in a manner not seen since Jesse Jackson in the 1980s or even George McGovern during the 1970s. Journalist and Beliefnet cofounder Steven Waldman, an influential chronicler of the God gap, now touted the emergence of the "Obamagelicals." They included an influential portion of the evangelical center, too-potential swing voters whom the Obama campaign targeted through a series of house parties and events at Christian colleges. Joel Hunter and a more reliably Democratic evangelical leader, Tony Campolo, helped to write abortion-reduction language into the party's platform. While supporting Roe v. Wade in no uncertain terms, the plank acknowledged the value of health care and education to "help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and thereby also reduce the need for abortions." Hunter gave an invocation at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Jim Wallis rang in the campaign year by heralding a "Post-Religious Right America." He fantasized about "linking the tradition of Billy Graham with the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr." to create a new "Great Awakening."
Wallis was something of a celebrity by 2008, albeit an ambivalent one. He continued to eschew political labels even as he led a proxy campaign for Obama. His message was unstated but obvious: Electing a Democrat to replace Bush was the best way to sink the Christian Right's ship. In April 2008, Sojourners held a 10,000-strong "Justice Revival" at the Vineyard Church of Columbus, Ohio. Other progressive evangelicals were more explicit in their partisan support for Obama and his party. Liberal activist Mara Vanderslice founded the Matthew 25 Network, a political action committee that spent $500,000 on Christian radio advertisements in strategic states. Brian McLaren, a Matthew 25 Network supporter, posted a five-part explanation of his decision to vote for Obama and urged readers to follow his lead.
Evangelical progressives saw 2008 as a critical election, a sign that younger evangelicals were freeing themselves from the yoke of Republican affiliation. Obama's convincing election victory, wrote one enthusiastic theologian, portended "the birth of a new prophetic evangelical politics" to replace the older "evangelical warrior politics." Despite having supported the winning presidential candidate, however, most progressive evangelicals were not eager to turn Sojourners into the Moral Majority. Randall Balmer hoped that evangelicals would "position themselves once again at the margins of society." The election had helped to overturn the reigning evangelical paradigm, freeing evangelicals to go back to being faithful.
As president, Obama made a similar calculation about the limits of evangelical left politics. Support from progressive evangelicals and select moderates had assisted his efforts to look faith-friendly and protected him from attacks by the much larger forces on the evangelical right. In terms of evangelical politics, though, the analogy between 1980 and 2008 was an imperfect one.
A significant evangelical shift toward the Democratic Party was not in the offing.