“Sarah Palin and the God Gap,” The Guardian, 3 September 2008.
How Sarah Palin is intended to fight back Obama’s offensive among values voters.
The announcement of Alaska governor Sarah Palin as the vice-presidential nominee for the Republican party has been spun in several different ways: as a “bold”, “game-changing” pick, as a blatant pander to “disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters” and other women, or even as a last-minute “Hail Mary” choice, executed in desperation and meant to shake up the race that John McCain was all but bracing to lose. These are all valid considerations. More fundamentally, however, Palin’s selection should be seen as an aggressive move from the GOP to reassert an advantage that by some accounts had been eroding, among one of the most reliably Republican voting blocs in modern memory: Christians.
The Democrats, fresh off a well-received gathering in Denver, certainly had reason to think they had pulled a stealth move of their own. Barack Obama’s campaign organisation, which brought the Democratic National Committee’s operations to Chicago in June, had, as early as March of 2007, put a premium on getting the electoral support of churchgoing Christians, from Evangelicals to Baptists to Catholics.
Obama already boasts endorsements from prominent religious voices like Douglas Kmiec, author Brian McLaren and the Rev KirbyJohn Caldwell, who presided over Jenna Bush’s marriage. Among white evangelicals, he is running even with the last five democratic nominees, save Bill Clinton (a natural). One religious scholar recently marked the presence of “‘Obama-Curious’ Evangelicals and Catholics”. And in August, he made his commitment to a robust voice for faith in politics even more obvious, calling for expanded faith-based initiatives.
So more than she is a pick designed to reach out to Pumas and their ilk, Palin – a strongly anti-choice western evangelical traditionalist – is a pick for the people of faith in this country, the same four million “values voters” who, if exit polling is to be believed, handed the election to George Bush in 2004. In light of the Democrats’ open pitch to these voters in 2008, McCain’s selection joins a battle for believers like few ever witnessed in US electoral history.
Despite his well-received August performance at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in California, a proving ground for both candidates on moral issues (which Obama has visited twice), McCain is not a candidate that has endeared himself to the religious right. Astonishingly, some voters, Pumas included, still believe McCain to be a pro-choice candidate. Some conservatives have yet to discount his year 2000 “agents of intolerance” remark. His outreach to now-repudiated pastor John Hagee and staffing of a catholic adviser who had been suspected of sexual harassment can be seen as evidence of his unfamiliarity with movement conservatives and their religious leaders. And a summer survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life suggests that Republican identification among evangelicals is down 12% from 2004. This enthusiasm gap is something that has to trouble McCain’s internal pollsters seeking to match and exceed Bush’s turnout with this group.
Obama, on the other hand, has long had an interest in reaching out to voters of faith. As he said in a debate this January in South Carolina: “When you’re not going to church, you’re not talking to church folk. … I think that we can go after those folks and we can get them.” In the months before the Iowa caucuses, Obama began a series of casual “faith forums” that would bring the state’s heavily evangelical voting public together to discuss faith in politics – and hopefully to sign up for a more overtly political Obama town hall or rally. A campaign insider familiar with the organising effort told me that this strategy “has been a huge break from the past in terms of religious outreach. We’ve elevated it to a central part of the campaign and campaign message.”
This is a big improvement over the 2004 Democratic effort. “Everything is different,” says Mara Vanderslice, a religious organiser who headed John Kerry’s efforts in that election. Vanderslice, who in 2004 had one intern and a cell phone between them, now heads a multi-state Political Action Committee devoted to supporting Obama’s efforts to win the White House for the Democratic party. The group, called Matthew 25, takes its name from the very scripture Obama quoted in South Carolina – the call to “[treat] the least of these as he would” – and which has been an underpinning of the social gospel that animated preachers during the civil rights movement, and at Trinity United Church in Chicago, Obama’s former faith home.
The fruits of this new energy were on display in Denver, as the convention kicked off with a Faith in Action gathering that boasted figures from diverse religious traditions making the case for why Democrats should win over the “values voters” this year. Later that week, the Democrats’ faith caucus – the first ever of its kind, held right alongside the women’s caucus and the Hispanic caucus – boasted prominent religious leaders such as progressive evangelical Jim Wallis, powerful Catholic voice John Dilulio, Martin Luther King contemporary Otis Moss Jr, and former congressman and anti-choice Indianan Tim Roemer.
Each speaker sought to promote Obama’s “common ground for common good” rubric to the assembly, which ranged from graying, ponytailed white men and big black dudes in natty three piece suits to committed pro-choice women. Rabbi Jack Moline, who leads a diverse congregation at Agudas Achim in Virginia, addressed education and how his Judaism informs his public policy: “It makes no sense to speak of No Child Left Behind when we ourselves don’t know where we’re going,” he said, to roaring applause.
Make no mistake: Obama has a lot of work to do with Christians – some of whom don’t even count him among their number. But this rhetoric has been shown to resonate with evangelicals under 40 years old – those more committed to social equality and environmental justice than their parents, and less likely to abhor homosexuality. Further, Obama’s team is using the best of old and new organising to get out this vote – standard block-by-block canvasses are paired with high-tech messaging brought to supporters on Obama for America DVDs, which they’re encouraged to watch at house parties for neighbours and parishioners who want to know more about Obama. An Obama insider adds that they have hundreds of grassroots volunteers and paid staff on the case, and hope to hold “10,000 of these before November”.
In the face of this sub rosa offensive among the heart of the GOP coalition, and with a candidate like McCain that makes movement conservatives and evangelicals in particular a bit uneasy, it’s easy to see why the Republican camp could have felt threatened into choosing Palin.
To be sure, the God-off promises pitfalls within both party coalitions. Republican elites have expressed their share of reservations about Palin. David Frum, for one, called her “a wild gamble”. And the recent revelation that Palin’s 17-year-old daughter is pregnant could cause an uneasy accounting for the GOP’s stance on abstinence only-education and traditional family values. For their part, Democrats are tetchy about the encroachment of church into state, and the difficulties of sharing a party with some fervently religious Democrats. The Rev Charles Blake, one of the keynote speakers at the Faith in Action gathering in Denver, irked pro-choice religious leader Marjorie Signer, who told me she found Blake’s full-throated defence of the rights of the unborn “inappropriate”.
At any rate, come November, watch the exit polls to see where the churchgoing Americans land. It’s unlikely that the Democrats can capture a majority, but they don’t need one to take back the White House. It’s drama enough that Obama, McCain and now Palin have joined a battle royale to see just which party can better be their brother’s – or sister’s – keeper.