BLOGGERJacques Berlinerblau is an Associate Professor and Director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at the School of Foreign Service. Berlinerblau has published on a wide variety of issues ranging...
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The Coming Battle for Electoral Heaven
June 6, 2008
With Hillary Clinton’s expected suspension of campaign operations Saturday, the Faith and Values Primary Season will officially come to an end.
Speaking on behalf those who study the intersection between religion and politics I want to give a shout out to all the Republicans and Democrats who ran for the presidency. Especially you, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. You guys were the best.
But now we must move to the general election and here are some of the stories I predict we will be following. First and foremost, expect the candidates to be exceedingly cautious with all forms of Faith and Values politicking. The carefree days when an operative could simply approach a cleric and say “Hey you over there with the megachurch and the media empire. Want to join our team?” are decidedly over.
McCain and Obama have endured third-degree burns across 33% of their spring campaigns as a result of their associations with incendiary spiritual mentors, advisers and endorsers. McCain’s camp was singed because they vetted Reverends Hagee and Parsley poorly.
Obama’s injuries were somewhat different and more difficult to heal. He now lives in constant fear of being jack-in-the-boxed by Reverend Wright or Father Pfleger, or whomever else: 1) was his friend, 2) wears a collar, 3) says awful things about America, and, 4) makes a cameo on YouTube.
The controversies surrounding Trinity United Church of Christ have, understandably, left him gun shy and hesitant when discussing religion. And this reluctance is problematic because Obama is unequivocally superior to McCain when it comes to appealing to religious constituencies.
He is endowed with a sharp theological intellect and knows how to do Advanced God Talk (i.e., God Talk directed to people who are not within your own faith tradition). Obama is a very special politician in that he can connect with people who are very different from him. In theory, he should be able to play the ecumenical card to great advantage.
This calls attention to a tactical quandary that confronts Team Obama: how will the Senator from Illinois press his competitive religious advantages in light of recent pastor disasters? Think of Obama like a fighter jet: lethal when in the air, but merely nice to look at when sitting in the hangar. At present, his Faith and Values operation is grounded.
His handlers have to figure out how to thrust him back into the oratorical heavens, so to speak. The challenge is to get him aloft without the publicity-seeking missiles of Trinity Church sending him hurtling back to earth.
At the same time, Obama’s Faith and Values unit will be waging pitched battles on the Evangelical, Jewish, and Catholic fronts. I assume that Mainline Protestants will vote for him overwhelmingly. Ditto for the "No Religion" people. But after that he will need to role up his sleeves and fight in the name of god votes
For starters, he will need to make inroads in the lucrative Evangelical market. His goals here should be twofold. First (and this is very doable) he needs to draw the small but growing progressive Evangelical wing to his candidacy.
Second (and this a bit harder), he must not alienate White Evangelicals who won’t vote for him anyhow. This may sound counter-intuitive, but given that McCain has a history of troubles with this group, Obama will increase his chances by not giving conservative Evangelicals any reason to circle November 4th on their calendars.
John Kerry won a scant 21% of the Evangelical vote in 2004. If Obama can carry between 31-35% this time around he will be in excellent shape. Kerry, however, carried 76% of the much smaller Jewish ballot. The 2008 Democratic nominee would do well to approximate this number. Of course, his adversary has already tarred him as inexperienced and unreliable on Israeli security and Iranian aggression.
To counteract this Obama needs to surround himself with highly skilled national security advisers who do not have neon-light blinking reputations as doves and/or "State Department Arabists." (His recent address at AIPAC was, in the view of some, also a step in the right direction).
Playing to his strengths, he needs to spend a lot of time kibbitzing in swing-state synagogues especially of the Conservative and Modern Orthodox denominations (He has solid support among the more liberal Reform Jews).
No convincing explanation has emerged for Obama’s struggles with Catholics in the primaries. Since one ought never futz around with the nation’s largest faith constituency, the Senator will have to think carefully about how to woo them. The trouble is that the staunchly anti-abortion McCain generally polls well among White and Latino Catholics.
While Obama’s pro-choice views guarantee that a segment of Catholics will never vote for him, once again his handlers must be confident that to know him is to love him. It is here where he must take to the skies and speak about things like compassion and unjust wars and grace. His rhetorical gifts and human touch (and choice of a Catholic VP?) will be of the utmost importance if he is to ascend to electoral heaven.