Jeremiah Wright, the preacher who brought Barack Obama to Jesus, also brought him the week from hell. Anyone within reach of even the most primitive forms of media now knows that Wright, the retired pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ, has preached sermons that veered into the swamp of anti-Americanism and indulged in wild conspiracy theories. So, after being subject to a rumor campaign that pronounced him a stealth Muslim, Obama was now widely deemed to subscribe to a defective brand of Christianity. What other politician has been so plagued by matters involving God? It would not be surprising if Obama felt a sudden kinship for Job.
Obama surely must feel, at the very least, the bitter irony: Few recent presidential candidates have spent more time wrestling with the politics of religion. I have watched him do this from afar for a decade. I first encountered Obama at a Harvard conference on bolstering community, where he befriended Jim Wallis, the progressive evangelical leader. The two have remained in close touch ever since. Well before Obama began running for president, he delivered speeches about the politics of the faithful that were unusually sophisticated by the standards of contemporary politics.
And, on the few occasions I have spoken with Obama about his faith, he has evinced an understanding of the spiritual lives of Americans and familiarity with Reinhold Niebuhr’s theology of skepticism and humility. When I interviewed him about his relationship with Wright last week, he told me, “Churches are institutions of men, and, as a result, they are flawed.” As I paused to marvel at how this remark could have been plucked from one of Niebuhr’s essays, Obama seemed to have the same realization. He quipped, “And that’s as Niebuhrian as you can get.”
It’s typical Obama: using Niebuhr to describe an African American church. During this campaign, Obama has set about preaching a different kind of liberal religion, one that includes the old social justice faith but is also deeply influenced by the experience of the black church. And, if he can move past the Wright controversy, his gospel holds enormous electoral potential. Like the civil rights preachers of old, he has found a religious language that expresses a civic faith sought by secular voters no less than by the religiously inclined—a language that could ease the Democrats’ estrangement from theologically conservative Christians. In Obama’s signature slogan, “Change We Can Believe In,” the most important word may not be “change” but “believe.”
Many Democrats discovered God in the 2004 exit polls showing George W. Bush winning big with religiously observant voters and those who said “moral values” were important to them. Even if the Democrats’ gestures to the devout often seemed contrived, this openness to faith was, on the whole, a salutary development: Prejudice is still prejudice, and, if it took exit polls to persuade liberals to extend their multicultural openness to people of faith, Hallelujah.
After Bush’s reelection, new organizations such as Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good were formed to battle Karl Rove and the GOP for the hearts of the faithful. Smart religious consultants began advising Democrats on how not to leave so many religious votes on the table.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party confronted a crisis as voters concluded that the Bush presidency was a failure. In the 2006 midterm elections, religious voters remained more loyal to the Republicans than the less religious. But, in many states, even the godly started turning on the GOP, and, in some, Democrats nominated candidates who could speak of their own faith naturally and with conviction.
This was happening as the white evangelical world itself was changing. New leaders and new issues were engaging the faithful, particularly younger evangelicals, who were more open to homosexuals, for example, than their elders had been. More importantly, evangelicals of all stripes developed a larger view of their Christian mission, which came to encompass poverty, aids in Africa, and the environment.
Most prominent among the leaders of this movement is Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback Church in California’s Orange County and author of the best-selling The Purpose Driven Life. Warren is not an ideologue like Pat Robertson or the late Jerry Falwell. He is as conservative as they come on core social issues but has been openly critical of the old religious right. “Jesus’ agenda is far bigger than just one or two issues,” he said after the 2006 election. “We have to care about poverty, we have to care about disease, we have to care about illiteracy, we have to care about corruption in government, sex trafficking.”
As for the leadership of the old religious right, it failed to deliver in this year’s Republican primaries. John McCain won the GOP nomination in the face of their opposition. They didn’t like Mike Huckabee, either. But, with one foot in the old religious right and one in a new evangelical populism, Huckabee won a large share of the evangelical vote. Thoroughly orthodox on abortion and gay marriage, he spoke of those losing out in the economy and addressed health care and education. In discussing abortion, he often turned to a broader definition of “life” by calling for respect for human rights around the globe.
The current fluidity in the evangelical world gives Obama his chance of supplying an alternative that would appeal to some of these Warren-style Christians. Obama has gone out of his way to speak respectfully of abortion’s foes. His oft-repeated argument that social improvement requires not only “changes in government policy” but also “changes in hearts and a change in minds” appeals to the conversion impulse so integral to the evangelical spirit.
The purpose-driven pastor himself seemed eager to break old molds when he invited Obama in 2006 to join Senator Sam Brownback at Saddleback to discuss the global aids problem, an issue on which both politicians had worked. Right-wingers said Obama’s support for abortion rights obligated the pastor to withdraw the invitation. Warren wouldn’t budge. “People ask me, ‘Rick, are you right-wing or are you left-wing?’ ” Warren told ABC News. “I’m for the whole bird.”
Obama has been preparing many years for Whole Bird Christianity.
Of course, to bring his Christian faith to Rick Warren’s church, Obama—raised with no religion at all—first had to become a Christian. He had to “walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ one day [in 1987] and be baptized.” And that’s why it’s so hard for Obama to cut himself off from Wright altogether: The pastor is central to Obama’s Christian narrative. Indeed, the above quotation comes from his book The Audacity of Hope, whose title was inspired by a Wright sermon. Obama has backed away as far as he could without completely disowning the man who he has referred to as “family.” Obama told me “the essential failure” of Wright’s words “is that they lacked the sense of redemption which is the essence of the Christian faith.” Yet Obama, as he put it in a statement on the Huffington Post, was also careful to note what he had learned from Wright: “[T]he sermons I heard him preach always related to our obligation to love God and one another, to work on behalf of the poor, and to seek justice at every turn.”
In truth, Wright’s statements highlighted by the press ran directly counter to the gospel Obama has been preaching: the message of Civil Rights Christianity, a decidedly multiracial and hopeful creed. Obama’s emphasis on hope; his talk of struggle, organizing, and movement-building; his repeated references to “the fierce urgency of now”—all openly echo the vocabulary of a civil rights cause steeped in the Scriptures. In particular, he invokes not the side of Martin Luther King Jr. capable of great anger over injustice, but, rather, King’s most conciliatory themes.
If Obama’s approach is a sincere move (he is plain in his book that he became a Christian in part because he was “drawn to the power of the African-American religious tradition to spur social change”), it is also a shrewd one. In trying to move the religious dialogue forward, Obama is drawing it back to a time when so many pastors were successfully allied with liberalism on the civil rights question that none other than Falwell scolded, “Preachers are not called upon to be politicians, but to be soul-winners.”
Civil Rights Christian language has many political advantages; most notably, it is resolutely centered not on the defeat of adversaries, but on their conversion. The conversion theme, and Civil Rights Christianity’s notion of building a cross-racial “beloved community,” fit almost perfectly with Obama’s core message of political and racial reconciliation. “We need to take faith seriously,” Obama writes in his book, “not simply to block the religious right but to engage all persons of faith in the larger project of American renewal.”
Obama’s approach made its national debut in a June 2006 speech to Call to Renewal, a group organized by Jim Wallis. It was the address of a politician who knows that Democrats need a significant share of the religious vote—and also knows that Democrats depend on substantial support from secular voters. According to John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the University of Akron, 20 percent of John Kerry’s 2004 voters were secular, atheist, agnostic, or unaffiliated with a church or religious group; only 7 percent of Bush’s voters fell into one of those categories. And Kerry’s religious vote was, typically for the Democrats, thoroughly polyglot: Fourteen percent of Kerry’s voters were white evangelical Protestants, 13 percent were black Protestants, 22 percent were Catholics, and 4 percent were Jews.
The question facing post-2004 Democrats is how to hold all these votes—and add a few more to create a majority. Obama’s recipe has two main ingredients: In the Call to Renewal speech, he asserted that “secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.” You could almost hear the cheers at Rick Warren’s church and others like it. At the same time, he argued that religious Americans needed to remember “the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice.” There could be no talk of ours as “a Christian nation” since “we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers. . . . Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion specific, values.”
The Grand Obama Compromise comes down to a call for mutual respect, of believers by unbelievers and vice versa. What else would you expect from a candidate who promises, in speech after speech, to “turn the page” on our recent history of disagreeable political (and moral) conflict?
In fairness, Hillary Clinton also understands the world of faith far better than most Democrats. Her lifelong Methodism is of the classic sort: a combination of the genuinely spiritual—she speaks of friends who pray for her as “prayer warriors”—and the social and political. “Our faith calls us to do what is hard, to give voice to the voiceless, to lift up the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick,” Clinton said to a Baptist meeting in January. “We are called, not asked, not urged, not requested, nor ordered, but called to love one another as Jesus has loved us.”
The Clinton campaign’s top religious adviser, Burns Strider, is a shrewd and cheerful Southern Baptist who has been trying to get Democrats to take religion seriously since the Great Flood. He performed similar chores for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and played a major role in encouraging Clinton to appear on a CNN broadcast last year in which Clinton, Obama, and John Edwards all spoke about their religious lives. Clinton outshined Obama, who was relentlessly intellectual that night.
Given her personal interests and passions, there is no reason why Clinton could not offer her own religious synthesis. But, for now, it is Obama who has worked out a comprehensive approach to faith. Perhaps he has done so because he came to faith as an adult and feels called upon to explain his choice, to give testimony. Perhaps he wants to rebuke those who say falsely that he is a Muslim. Perhaps the constitutional law professor in him finds the church-state issue intellectually engaging. Or perhaps this very shrewd politician simply understands how important it is to Democratic and liberal prospects that we return to the promised land of King and Niebuhr.
Could Obama make it work? To have a chance, his Jeremiah Wright problem will have to fade. Then much will depend on whether the men and women in the pews of congregations such as Saddleback really do yearn for a different and more moderate public role for faith. If Obama can end the culture wars by building a center-left majority that includes the religious and non-religious, then conservative resistance to his “larger project of American renewal” would become irrelevant. He would have the whole bird.
E. J. Dionne Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.
By E.J. Dionne, Jr.