Pointing to his spiritually-laced campaign rhetoric and outreach to religious groups, liberal faith-based organizations have high expectations that President-elect Barack Obama will increase funding for their activities and warmly welcome their lobbying on poverty, climate change and other issues.
But analysts across the ideological spectrum said that much of what the Obama administration might propose for faith-based organizations is unclear and that the new president could face legal challenges about whether religious groups can discriminate against gay people and those of religions other than their own in hiring.
Liberal faith groups among Catholics, Jews, mainline Protestants and progressive evangelicals have felt left out of efforts by President Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives over the past eight years and are looking forward to more attention from Obama.
Still, some activists close to Obama say they expect him to seek cooperation from conservative Christian groups, some of which were highly critical of him during the campaign.
“The question is whether white evangelicals, 70 million of them, three-quarters of whom voted for McCain, whether a significant percentage will be willing to cooperate with him on anything,” said David Gushee, a well-known evangelical Christian ethicist who heads the group Evangelicals for Human Rights.
Those who do, some analysts said, might risk being tagged as too willing to compromise their beliefs.
Obama raised concerns among some of his supporters this summer when he announced that he would expand Bush’s faith-based initiative. That effort helped religious groups compete for federal grants for social service work, but some critics have said it allows government sponsorship of religion. Other critics accused Bush of using the initiative to reward his conservative religious supporters.
Bush issued an executive order allowing groups to receive federal funding even if they hired only people of their own religion. Critics of that move said it allows groups to discriminate and still be rewarded with taxpayers’ money.
Obama said this summer that he would not allow religious groups to get federal funding if they discriminate in hiring. But evangelicals close to the Obama team say they are getting signals that the door might still be open to changes. Being required to hire non-Christians would be a deal-breaker even for progressive evangelicals, they say.
“Christian influence is felt not only in direct proselytizing, but in strategies and characters and values of people implementing them,” Gushee said. “We think the identity of Christian institutions must be protected, and the main way you do that is by who you hire. So if a condition for getting money is limits on who you hire, most organizations won’t play ball.”
Beyond hiring is the much larger issue of how engaged Obama will be on faith-based programs. Activists are eager to find out who might lead the administration’s efforts and whether funding will expand or even continue at current levels given the economy.
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Data Signals Potential Long-Term Shift; Young Evangelicals are Less Conservative, More Pluralistic
New exit poll data, revealing a doubling in young evangelical support for Barack Obama compared to John Kerry, is consistent with recent survey findings that young evangelicals are more pluralistic, less conservative and more supportive of an active government at home and abroad than their elders. Together, these findings signal a potential long-term shift among a new generation of evangelical voters.
â€œYoung evangelicals embrace a broad range of moral concerns — they want to see government power used responsibly to address key national problems, and their heart breaks for those who suffer the most both here and around the world,â€ said Dr. David Gushee, professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University and author of The Future of Faith in American Politics: The Public Witness of the Evangelical Center. â€œThey disdain ideology, partisanship, polemics, and religious pandering. They want to be known for what they are for and not what they are against.â€
â€œYounger evangelicals’ votes in this election were deposits in an investment account of hope. If President Obama delivers on his promisesâ€”such as seeking real solutions on abortions, abolishing nuclear weapons, ending torture, caring for the poor, and stewardship of creationâ€”then the myth that Christians are a reliable partisan base will vanish in our generation,â€ said Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, Director of the Two Futures Project, a nuclear disarmament initiative centered around young evangelicals. â€œThat would reshape American politics.â€
Released last month by Faith in Public Life, The Faith and American Politics Survey of 2,000 Americans and an over-sample of 1,250 Americans ages 18-34, included both land line and cell phone interviews. The pollâ€™s results, which were analyzed in the report, â€œThe Young and the Faithfulâ€ found:
â€¢ Less than a majority (49%) of younger white evangelicals identify as conservative, compared to nearly two-thirds (65%) of older evangelicals.
â€¢ A majority (56%) of younger white evangelicals believe diplomacy rather than military strength is the best way to ensure peace, compared to only 44% of older white evangelicals.
â€¢ Younger white evangelicals are also more likely than older white evangelicals to favor a bigger government offering more services, by a margin of 21 points (44% and 23% respectively).
â€¢ Younger white evangelicals are strongly opposed to abortion rights, with two-thirds saying abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. Yet only 32% said they would not vote for a candidate who disagreed with them on the issue.
â€¢ A majority of younger white evangelicals favor either same-sex marriage (24%) or civil unions (28%), compared to 61% of older evangelicals who favor no legal recognition of same-sex relationships. They are 2.5 times more likely than older evangelicals to say that gay couples should be allowed to marry (25% to 9%).
â€¢ While less than one-third (30%) of older white evangelicals say a person can be moral without believing in God, 44% of younger evangelicals affirm this idea, a 14-point gap.
Faith in Public Lifeâ€™s Faith and American Politics Survey was conducted by Public Religion Research with interviews performed under the supervision of Opinion Access Corp August 28 – September 19, 2008.
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Catholics pretty much voted the way the rest of the country did Nov. 4, even backing Democratic Sen. Barack Obama a little more strongly than the electorate overall, according to exit polls.
What the exit polls don’t explain, however, is whether efforts by bishops in some dioceses to direct Catholic voters to base their vote only on the abortion issue are responsible for some deviations from the general trend.
Typically, the majority of Catholic voters mirrors the majority of the electorate overall. But this time, in a couple of battleground states that Obama won but where some bishops were particularly visible on the topic of how to vote, a majority of Catholics backed Republican Sen. John McCain.
Nationwide, 54 percent of Catholics supported Obama and 44 percent voted for McCain. Of the total population, 52 percent voted for Obama and 46 percent for McCain.
By comparison, 52 percent of Catholics in 2004 supported Republican President George W. Bush and 47 percent voted for Democratic Sen. John Kerry. The total vote in 2004 was 51 percent for Bush and 48 percent for Kerry. In 2000 Catholics also lined up with the popular vote and supported Vice President Al Gore by 50 percent to the 47 percent who backed Bush that year. Bush won the electoral vote but not the popular vote.
Political and sociological analysts in several interviews and teleconferences Nov. 5 pointed out that Obama’s vote among Catholics reflected a 7-point increase over the Catholic vote for Kerry.
The exit polls divided voters into “all Catholics” or white, non-Hispanic Catholics. In the latter group, the shift toward the Democratic candidate was less pronounced than among Catholics overall. Fifty-two percent of white Catholics supported McCain, and 47 percent voted for Obama. Majorities of white Catholics also voted for Bush in both his elections, by 56 percent in 2004 and 52 percent in 2000.
Approximately 40 percent of U.S. Catholics are Hispanic and another 3 percent are African-American. Asian and Pacific Islanders constitute about 4 percent.
Latinos nationwide voted for Obama by 67 percent to 31 percent for McCain. African-Americans voted for Obama by 95 percent to 4 percent. Asians supported Obama by 62 percent to 35 percent.
In some states, Obama’s gains among Catholics were more substantial than the general picture. In Indiana in 2004, for example, Catholics supported Bush by 56 percent to 43 percent. This year in that state, Catholics were split evenly between Obama and McCain.
Although McCain won a majority of voters who attend church most frequently, Obama also made substantial inroads into that group, noted John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, in one of several teleconferences in which he spoke. The Republican advantage of 64 percent to 35 percent of those voters in 2004 shrank to just 55 percent McCain voters to 46 percent Obama voters.
The analysts agreed that voters based their election choices primarily on issues such as the economy, health care and the war in Iraq, rather than on issues typically identified as major religious concerns: abortion and same-sex marriage.
But Stephen Schneck, director of the Life Cycle Institute at The Catholic University of America, said that “for Catholics the economy itself is a moral issue.”
Especially in hard times, he said in a teleconference sponsored by the organization Faith in Public Life, “Catholics are reminded that there are moral dimensions to the economy.”
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President-elect Obama ran a campaign that was arresting in its discipline. There were almost no leaks. But, in his very first twenty-four hours since the election, the news that he had offered the job of White House chief-of-staff to Cong. Rahm Emmanuel leaked to the press. This would have been fine if Emmanuel had accepted the job already but he understandably needs to discuss the matter with his family. So, the first major news about the next president has him waiting on someone else. Not good. Obama needs to have a stern talk with his new transition team and tell them to keep quiet or find work elsewhere, especially as the new administration takes shape.
Many Democrats were hoping to win a 60 vote, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and they fell short. This actually will help Obama. It forces him and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to negotiate with moderate Republicans like Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe from Maine, and those negotiations will help Obama govern from the center. As well, any resulting legislation will bear that all-important label “bi-partisan.” Obama won the presidency by winning among Independent voters, voters who by definition resist partisan labels. Having to cross with 60-vote threshold with centrist Republican votes will help him beat back political pressures on the far left of the Democratic Party.
The strangest Senate result also gives Obama and Reid an opportunity. The good people of Alaska have evidently voted to re-elect long-time Sen. Ted Stevens, making him the first convicted felon to be sent to the Senate. The Democrats could be forgiven for wanting to let Stevens take his seat and serve as an on-going reminder of GOP corruption, and the GOP will not have the votes to expel him from the Senate on their own. But, Reid should insist that in exchange for getting Democrats to vote to expel Stevens from the Senate, he gets a big, big chit for an equal number of Republican votes on a major policy vote, say, health care reform.
Obama and the congressional Democrats have to answer a question: Do they want to govern for four years or for thirty? If they resist the efforts of liberal special interests to push legislation like the Freedom of Choice Act, centrist voters will bolt. If they studiously govern from the center, let the GOP show its most extreme side (see tomorrow’s post on the future of Sarah Palin), and demonstrate basic competence in the provision of services, Democrats can craft a governing coalition that could last a generation.
Among those who shifted from the red seats to the blue on Tuesday were religiously motivated voters. According to exit polls, Obama even increased his margins over Kerry’s numbers four years ago among those who attend church every week, a demographic that had become one of the clearest indications of voting behavior. “We see Roman Catholics being the very true swing voters — going for Gore, then Bush, and now solidly for Barack Obama, some diversification in the white evangelical vote, and Obama making inroads among all religious attendance groups, with the largest increase among the more than weekly attenders,” according to Dr. Robert Jones of Public Religion research who joined a conference call on the religious vote sponsored by the group Faith in Public Life yesterday. Indeed, Obama won Catholics 55%-44% a remarkable turnaround from 2004 when George Bush won 52% of all Catholics.
The images of people celebrating Obama’s win all around the world were heart-warming. Not so the stern unsmiling face of Russian president Dmitri Medvedev. Obama must brace himself for the hard fact that it is not in Russia’s or China’s or Iran’s interest to have a strong U.S. president, and that the leaders of these nations will act accordingly. Even here, though, it is impossible not to note Obama’s luck: the crashing price of oil will put huge strains on the Russian and Iranian societies which have been awash in petro-dollars.
Still, walking around the streets of Washington, D.C. yesterday, it was impossible not to notice a certain lightness in people’s steps, a greater readiness to smile to a stranger, and a pride that our nation had broken yet another barrier in her often uneven quest for equality. Last night, at the CVS, a group of fifty college students was camped out, quietly reading or talking, in the middle of the aisle. They were waiting for more copies of the Washington Post’s commemorative edition.
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Barack Obama’s election as president could signal waning influence by the Christian Right in American politics, according to several experts — but his improvements over previous Democratic nominees’ appeal to religious voters could also simply be a variation on an old pattern.
Panels of religious and polling experts, in two separate Nov. 5 conference calls with reporters, noted that Obama had improved on both John Kerry’s and Al Gore’s performance in most categories of religious voters.
“The religion gaps are alive and well, and in 2008, favoring the Democrats,” said John Green, a religion-and-politics expert with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
The Democratic nominee garnered about 53 percent of the popular vote to GOP nominee John McCain’s 46 percent.
Green noted that Obama improved slightly but significantly on John Kerry’s performance in every major religious category. The 2004 Democratic nominee lost white evangelicals by huge margins — and Catholics by a narrower margin — to President Bush.
But Obama did better among evangelicals and won a majority of Catholics. He also scored significant increases in support from Jews, Protestants in general and those not affiliated with any religion.
Among white voters who identified themselves to exit pollsters as evangelical or “born-again” Christians, 26 percent voted for Obama and 73 percent voted for McCain. That’s a 5-point improvement over Kerry’s performance among white evangelicals.
However, Obama did significantly better among white evangelicals in Midwestern and Rust Belt states than he did in the South. For instance, in Alabama, only 8 percent of white evangelicals supported Obama, whereas in Iowa, 33 percent did.
Nationwide, Obama won a significant majority — 54 percent — of Catholics. That was a demographic in which Bush bested Kerry 52-47 percent in 2004, giving Obama a 7-point boost among Catholics.
Obama’s biggest boost in terms of religious categories over previous Democrats came among those who are not formally affiliated with any religious group. Those listing no religious affiliation favored him over McCain 75-23 percent. That’s an increase of 8 points over Kerry’s showing among the unaffiliated — and an increase of 14 points over 2000 Democratic nominee Al Gore’s 61-percent share of the same category.
Obama also did better than Kerry among all religious categories in terms of attendance at worship services. His biggest increase was among those who worship more than once a week, 43 percent of whom voted for him. That was an 8-point gain over Kerry’s 2004 share of frequent worshipers. The Pew experts said much of that increase may owe to Obama’s strong support among African-American Protestants and Latino Catholics.
A separate panel of moderate-to-progressive religious leaders, assembled by the advocacy group Faith in Public Life, said the trends indicate many religious voters are moving away from traditional religious-conservative political leanings.
David Gushee, professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta, said the election revealed a “fracture” between the Christian Right and the general public. Whether that fracture is permanent, he said, depends a great deal on whether the Religious Right positions itself as “flat-out opposition” to a Democrat-controlled Washington or tries to build coalitions aimed at achieving goals for the common good.
Rich Cizik, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said the Religious Right has treated politics as a “zero-sum game,” where in order for them to win someone else had to lose.
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