Obama: a Religious Democrat

Everyone knows by now that Barack Obama gave an important speech on race yesterday in Philadelphia that was widely praised.  He spoke about the origins of racial tension in America from its roots in slavery to the modern day.  While condemning the anti-American comments of his former pastor, Reverend Wright, he also explained why older African Americans feel anger and resentment toward White America.  But he went beyond that to also talk about why White Americans, especially immigrants, often feel similar anger and resentment toward the African American community when their children are bussed to desegregated schools or they see black people get jobs through affirmative action.

I believe that an important aspect of his speech was overlooked by most analysts.  Senator Obama made it very clear that he is a religious Christian who believes in God.  He did this both by describing his 20 years as a member of the Trinity United Church of Christ and his discovery of his “Christian faith” in that Church and by proclaiming his “faith in God”.  He also quoted scripture, urging “that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper.  Let us be our sister’s keeper.”  This is important because recent Democrats who ran for President have generally spoken very little about their religious faith, especially in comparison to Republicans.  Things have been so lopsided that the Republican Party has often appeared to be the party of religious Americans.  In particular, frequent attention is given to the strong support of evangelical Christians for the Republican Party and for George W. Bush in particular.  In contrast, the Democratic Party is often portrayed as the party of the secular elite of the East and West coasts.

In fact, a very good Time Magazine article from 7/12/2007 called “How the Democrats Got Religion” indicated that the Democratic Party largely ignored religion in the 2004 race but was making efforts to reach religious voters in this election.  Speaking about John Kerry, the article stated: “When it came to religious voters, as the saying goes, he never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”  The result was that Kerry only won 17% of evangelical voters compared to Bill Clinton’s 33%.  The chairman of the DNC, Howard Dean, who had also ignored religious voters during his aborted campaign, subsequently tried to improve the party’s standing with religious voters.  He and other party officials including Nancy Pelosi began reaching out to moderate church leaders in 2005.

Obama’s speech yesterday was certainly not the first time that he has mentioned his faith in God and the importance of his religion and church to him.  In fact, other Democratic candidates including both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards have also talked about their faith and reached out to religious organizations during the past year.  But Obama’s speech appears to be the first time this election cycle that a Democrat spoke about his or her faith and religion in a major speech that received a large amount of media coverage.  While religion was not the focus of his speech, it lurked in the background throughout it since he would not have been giving this speech if he had not been a long-term member of Reverend Wright’s church.

Of course, the Republicans have never really had a monopoly on religious voters.  Most African Americans are quite religious and have strongly backed the Democratic Party in modern times.  Many other religious voters also vote for Democrats.  In fact, the Time article quoted John C. Green of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life as saying that the percentage of white Evangelicals who identify themselves Republicans had declined to 40% by July, 2007 with many Evangelicals declaring themselves Independents.  Even in 2004, the percentage was only 50%, so some Evangelicals presumably voted for Democrats in 2004 and prior elections.  The perception that the Republicans had a lock on white Evangelicals was probably exaggerated.

In any case, both parties clearly do have religious members.  If Barack Obama and the rest of the Democratic Party continue to embrace their religion and faith and argue that the liberal policies of their party are actually in conformance with Judeo-Christian ethics and teachings, they will get more support from religious voters of all races and increase their chance of winning the White House in November.

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