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Jacques Berlinerblau Jacques 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...

A collaboration with Washingtonpost Newsweek Interactive's On Faith site, The God Vote explores the role of faith in this year's election. It is featured here as well as on Georgetown/On Faith.

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Top Faith & Values Stories of 2008 (Vol. 1)

November 10, 2008

As promised, here are some of the most important Faith and Values stories of the 2008 election (compare them, if you wish, to those of 2007). My rankings in reverse order:

10: The Rise of the Faith-Based Operative: Last week, while giving a lecture at the American Academy of Religion and noticing scores of unshaven, scraggly, hung-over and rather forlorn-looking male and female graduate students strewn about the audience, I had an inspiration: "There will be more jobs in politics for those with advanced degrees in religion in the next ten years," I declaimed, "than there will be tenure- track positions in religious studies over the next century."

In 2008 we learned that having advisers and staffers who have competence in religion is essential to a successful presidential run. They can teach you how to neutralize vulnerabilities with Catholic voters. They can help convince fence-sitting Jews that you are a true-blue friend of Israel. They can warn you against seeking the endorsement of Reverends Hagee and Parsley.

In short, the Faith and Values guru, the religious imaging specialist, the pollster from the seminary, and the fellow with the Rolodex that contains the email address of every imam in the Metropolitan Area are now indispensable components of an American political campaign. In the coming years, all presidential candidates, not to mention hundreds of would-be senators and congresspersons, will call upon their services.

Beats the heck out of playing a (most likely rigged) lottery for the first tenure-track position advertised in your area of specialization since the days of Eisenhower, no? So in honor of Ike, let us affirm that the Faith and Values Industrial Complex, with its demographers, historians, theologians, and outreach specialists, proved its mettle in 2008 and is here to stay.

9. Pastoral Associations: Can't Live with them . . . . If you are a candidate for High Office and either know a member of the clergy or seek his or her endorsement, I would suggest you find out if your cleric has: 1) compared the United States to Nazi Germany, 2) made disparaging remarks about Jews, Catholics or Muslims, and, 3) solicited sex from a male or female prostitute. If the answer to these and other similar questions is "yes," I would urge you to find new spiritual counsel.

In this election we learned that the clerical company you keep can potentially sink your political fortunes. Little has been said about it, but perhaps the single most important decision Barack Obama made in 2008 was to leave Trinity United Church of Christ. It wasn't a coincidence that Hillary Clinton surged in March and April; precisely the moment that the media was familiarizing itself with Reverend Wright's worldview. The day in which politicians vet their pastors like their vice-presidents (John McCain notwithstanding) is close at hand.

8. Getting to Know the African-American Church (and Intelligentsia too): An unexpected and, I think, positive dividend of Obama's pastor disaster was the opportunity it afforded other Americans to learn about the depth and diversity of the African-American Church. It dawned fairly quickly on journos that Black Liberation Theology wasn't the only game in town. And next thing you know, all sorts of other Black Churches (be they Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish, or whatever) were being discussed.

In terms of the national public square, African-American modes of religion are about to have a coming out party--purple robes, Hammond B-2s, and all. Elvis-like homages/rip-offs in non-black worship communities can't be far behind (one of the grad students who fails to heed my warning above will probably be writing a dissertation about "the African-Americanization of American religion" in twenty years). And while I am making predictions, get ready to learn a lot more about a dynamic, cantankerous and heterogeneous class of Black intellectuals. Don't expect them all to be card-carrying members of the Barack Obama Fan Club, either.

7. Faith and Values Politicking: A Niche Market: All the major presidential aspirants in this election had sophisticated religious outreach teams on staff. All the major media outlets had competent reporters working the religion beat. This being said, there were many times when the F and V analysts were left praying for a story to break hours before their deadlines (I speak from personal experience and I speak as an atheist).

In the 40-plus debates that were staged in this campaign very few even mentioned religion. After the Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency on August 16th the candidates rarely made a point of talking about faith, or focusing explicitly on particular religious constituencies. In fact, for the last two and a half months McCain and Obama ran largely secular campaigns and talked a lot about the stoopid economy. We wanted Mike Huckabee, but all we got was Joe the Plumber.

So the point I wish to stress is that presidential contenders do faith-based politicking at certain times and certain places and direct it to certain constituencies--especially those, like Conservative Evangelicals who vote in massive blocks. But we have yet to become a country where God Talk infests every nook and cranny of our political discourse. At least not yet.

6. The Ground Game: The real, hot F and V action in 2008 happened out of sight. Ground operations are distinct in that: 1) they take place under the radar, 2) are played out over long periods of time, and, 3) are about building substantive relations in religious communities as opposed to dispensing sound bites and applause-getters. As I noted yesterday, this type of work is slow, expensive and more labor intensive than rice cultivation. But if I am not mistaken, it played a major role in Obama's victory.

In 2008 the Democrats took a page from Karl Rove in 2004 and learned how to ingratiate themselves to religious constituencies by building face-to-face networks. In turn, they used those constituencies to mobilize voters and to counter threats. The Catholic ground operation, for example, repulsed dozens of potentially lethal "communion denial" stories and claims that the Democrats were at odds with Church teachings.

Ironic, is it not, that Obama's F and V operatives helped answer the question the GOP asked at its convention about what a community organizer does?

To be continued on Tuesday. . . .