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Divide And Conquer

We asked Damon Linker, a frequent TNR contributor and the author of The Theocons, to weigh in on Barack Obama's freshly proposed faith-based programs. Here's what he had to say.

Barack Obama's proposal to transform President Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives into a Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships represents a bold attempt by the Democratic nominee to shatter the GOP's increasingly shaky hold over evangelical voters. Although almost 80 percent of them voted for Bush in 2004, many evangelicals now find themselves demoralized--about the Iraq war, about the economy, about how little the president has managed to move the culture in a socially conservative direction. And, if anything, the prospect of a McCain presidency dampens their spirits further, since many of them believe (rightly or wrongly) that McCain personally despises them and their deepest concerns. Yet Obama appears to understand the power of political inertia: Faced with the prospect of a secular-liberal president, most evangelicals will probably hold their noses and vote for McCain out of a combination of habit, loyalty to the GOP, and self-interest. (At least McCain will be more likely to appoint pro-life judges). In short, evangelicals will have to be given a reason to change, and Obama's speech in Zanesville, Ohio, this morning sought to provide them with one.

Obama promised to build and expand on the Bush administration's policy of directing federal funds to churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious organizations that provide social services to the needy. In making this proposal, Obama not only stole a page--or perhaps a chapter--from the "compassionate conservative" playbook, but he also reminded his listeners of their disappointment over the negligible accomplishments of Bush's own faith-based initiative. Is it possible that the Democratic nominee for president in 2008 is the better Christian candidate? That is the question Obama's speech attempted to plant in the minds of evangelicals voters. At this point, it remains unlikely that a majority of evangelicals will answer that question in the affirmative. But if Obama can capture even 30-40 percent of the evangelical vote, his divide-and-conquer strategy will have to be judged an enormous success. Obama will have succeeded in halting the electorally disastrous transformation of the Democratic Party into America's exclusively secular party.

As someone who would prefer to see our politics conducted in secular terms, I am disappointed by Obama's eagerness to engage in public displays of piety, not to mention his willingness to inject religion into public policy. But it's not really his fault. It is the American people who expect and demand their public servants to jump through religious hoops. Obama is merely an exceptionally gifted politician who knows that you run for office with the electorate you have, not the electorate you want.

--Damon Linker