Yes he did! Obama victory changes religion/politics debate

By  Patricia Zapor, Catholic News Service
  • November 5, 2008
{mosimage}Editors note: Barack Obama made history Nov. 4, becoming the first African American to be elected president of the United States. His soaringly eloquent victory speech, delivered before more than 100,000 supporters in Chicago's Grant Park recalled the famous “I had a dream speech” of civil rights hero Martin Luther King 40 years ago.

“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer,” said the president-elect.

Even his Republican rival Sen. John McCain recognized the enormity of the moment. In his gracious and moving concession speech, McCain praised the Democratic senator from Illinois.

"Sen. Obama has achieved a great thing for himself and for his country," McCain told a subdued crowd in Phoenix, Ariz.

"We have come a long way from the old injustices that once stained our nation's reputation and denied some Americans the full blessings of American citizenship."

Obama, son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, Obama's early life was included a period in Indonesia and Hawaii. He victory was solid: he collected 338 of the U.S. Electoral College votes (270 were needed to win), plus 96 per cent of the black vote, 66 per cent of the youth vote, 60 per cent of low-income votes and 55 per cent of female votes. He also took 53 per cent of the popular vote to McCain's 47.

Pope Benedict XVI sent a personal message to Obama Nov. 5, congratulating him and offering his prayers for the president-election, his family and for all the people of the United States.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said that because the message was addressed personally to Obama, the Vatican did not plan to publish it. However, he said, the papal message opened by referring to the "historic occasion" of the election, marking the first time a black man has been elected president of the United States.

"He assured him of his prayers that God would help him with his high responsibilities for his country and for the international community," Father Lombardi said.

Obama also received congratulations from the U.S. Catholic bishops. Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, sent the president-elect a congratulatory letter Nov. 5.

The cardinal congratulated President-elect Barack Obama on his "historic election" as the first African-American to win the White House.

"The people of our country have entrusted you with a great responsibility," the cardinal said in a letter. "As Catholic bishops we offer our prayers that God give you strength and wisdom to meet the coming challenges."

"The country is confronting many uncertainties," he said. "We pray that you will use the powers of your office to meet them with a special concern to defend the most vulnerable among us and heal the divisions in our country and our world.

During the long and often noisy campaign, religious supporters were visible. But unlike in previous campaigns, this year the Democrats didn't leave that field to the Republicans. In the following story from Catholic News Service in Washington, we explore how faith intersected in American politics in 2008.

WASHINGTON - However the post-election analysis interprets the actual influence of religion on this year's presidential campaign, the rules of that part of the political playbook may have changed for good.

After Democrat Barack Obama's convincing victory over his Republican rival John McCain, it was clear that several presumptions about the role of religion in presidential politics from the last few elections got turned on their head this time.

"Precedents are being set," said Burns Strider, who served as religious outreach director for Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign for the Democratic nomination for president.

In the 2004 campaign, typical of faith-based outreach was an e-mail letter sent to tens of thousands of parishioners by a group of ministers who led Protestant megachurches, Strider said at an Oct. 30 forum in Washington co-sponsored by Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the PBS show Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.

The letter focused on what it called core principles for Christian voters, principally opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.

"We haven't seen that this time," Strider said. "We haven't seen the same level of visceral attacks from evangelical and Catholic leaders."

Some of the change in rhetorical tone was the result of Democratic leaders making concerted efforts at outreach in the years between elections that included seeking dialogue with leaders of the Catholic Church.

At the same time, organizations such as Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and the Matthew 25 Network set out to broaden the perception of what people of faith see as important in politics, adding to the discussion topics such as poverty, economic justice and AIDS.

Among the other differences in how religion played out in the campaigns was that for the first presidential race since Bill Clinton's in 1992 and 1996, the Democrats had the candidate who was arguably more comfortable than his Republican counterpart in talking about his faith and articulating its influence on his life.

"I am my brother's keeper," Sen. Barack Obama said among his regular scriptural references in speaking appearances around the country. Meanwhile, Republican Sen. John McCain's oft-repeated story about his encounter with a secretly Christian guard at a Vietnamese prison camp 30 years ago became his stump-speech reference to the place of faith in his life.

Whether because of Obama's personal experience in working with faith groups, or because the party leadership finally caught on to approaches used successfully by the Republican Party in previous races, the Democrats for the first time since perhaps the 1960s had broad and effective religious outreach efforts.

In 2004 the Democrats had a one-person religious outreach "staff" who wasn't allowed to talk to the media and was ignored at every turn, but the party "got religion" in 2008. Obama's campaign had an entire religious outreach department, with money to spend and the ear of the candidate.

By contrast, the religiously motivated evangelical base that helped elect the last three Republican presidents didn't get strongly behind McCain until Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was nominated for vice president. Pre-election polls suggested that Palin didn't hold the same appeal for the Catholic voters who helped put Ronald Reagan in office and helped re-elect George W. Bush.

Deal Hudson, former publisher of the journal Crisis and director of Catholic outreach for Bush's two presidential campaigns, told Associated Press that a McCain effort using church members to get out the vote in the campaign's final few days was inadequate.

AP described a project that had about 15,000 volunteers recruited primarily from Protestant megachurches, conservative churches and Catholic parishes to distribute literature at churches. The material focused on abortion, gay marriage and judicial activism.

"If this were truly a national effort, the way it was in 2004, it might turn the election," Hudson told AP. "But it's too targeted — and targeted because of the lack of resources. The grass roots are there, but it's a really missed opportunity."

In another twist since the last election, most admonitions from Catholic bishops about the election focused on individual voters' moral responsibilities, rather than on elected leaders and their suitability to receive Communion.

At the forum, panelists said one reason for that change was that Catholic Democrats such as Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and church leaders such as Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington, have made a concerted effort at dialogue in the last four years.

Flare-ups of the conflicts between politicians and the church, such as when Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, a Catholic, misstated church teaching about abortion on Meet the Press, died down relatively quickly in the national news and didn't produce the level of public admonitions seen in 2004 about who is fit to receive Communion.

As the presidential election campaign drew to a close, some U.S. bishops urged Catholics not to base their votes on one issue alone, while others said no combination of issues could trump a candidate's stand on abortion.

The U.S. bishops also announced they were adding a discussion on "the practical and pastoral implications of political support for abortion" during their annual fall general meeting, although it was taking place after the presidential election.

Panelists at the Wilson School-PBS forum said of greater lasting significance to the way campaigns address religion-related concerns were efforts by Obama and groups like the Matthew 25 Network to change the discussion about abortion in American society from whether it should be legal or illegal to "let's work together to reduce the number of abortions."

If the rhetoric voiced by Obama and reflected in the Democratic platform turns into actual legislative and policy efforts that reduce abortions, "it takes abortion off the table" as the party-line divisive issue it has been for some voters, said Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton's Wilson School.

Language in the Democratic Party's platform about supporting alternatives to abortion such as adoption and reducing the number of unintended pregnancies was hailed as an important improvement by some but derided by others as "adding a good thing to an evil position."

Strider said he thinks the effort by the Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Pepperdine law professor Douglas Kmiec, a Catholic, and others to redefine "values voters" to include more than opponents of abortion and same-sex marriage "will stick."

Wallis for several years has been working to expand the political notion of religiously motivated voters to include concerns about poverty, war, global warming and AIDS.

Kmiec, who helped craft the Reagan administration's efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade, this year became an advocate for Obama.

He argued in public appearances, columns and a book, Can a Catholic Support Him?: Asking the Big Question About Barack Obama, that better health care, anti-poverty programs and education would be more successful at reducing abortions than a continuing focus primarily on reversing the Supreme Court decision.

Strider said Wallis, Kmiec and the Rev. Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., who has added the battle against AIDS to the agenda for evangelicals, "have stepped out into the wilderness" in trying to expand how religious voters are defined and demanding that politicians respond to them.


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