The Blog

Closing the God Gap

Did Obama's religious outreach pay off?

11:00 PM, Nov 6, 2008 • By MARK D. TOOLEY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Levels of religious practice remained a key indicator of voting preferences in 2008, with the religiously observant strongly still favoring the Republican, if slightly reduced from 2004. Evangelicals remained the strongest voting bloc for Republicans, giving 74 percent to John McCain, according to exit polls, compared to 79 percent for George W. Bush in 2004. Non-evangelical Protestants favored McCain by 54 percent versus 56 percent for Bush. Catholics shifted as a whole from slight preference for Bush in 2004 to slight preference for Obama in 2008, though practicing Catholics remained more Republican.

McCain's direct outreach to religious voters was minimal. Unlike Bush, he never publicly shared a personal religious testimony, preferring instead to recall a believing North Vietnamese prison guard when asked about his religion. In contrast, Obama spoke openly of his faith in Jesus Christ, anxious to dispel rumors about Muslim beliefs, and avoiding John Kerry's discomfort with religious talk in 2004. Evangelical Left and some liberal Catholic voices aggressively promoted Obama as a Democrat deserving of enthusiasm from religious people.

But in the end, Obama's greatest increase in support came from the religiously nonobservant. Kerry gained 67 percent of the religiously unaffiliated, while Obama got 75 percent. Sixty two percent of persons who never attend religious services supported Kerry, while 67 percent supported Obama. Fifty five percent of voters who worship weekly or more preferred McCain, compared to 61 percent for Bush in 2004 and 59 percent in 2000.

One religious shift that may have made a difference favoring Obama was where McCain got evangelical support. Exit polls show that evangelical voters in key Midwest states favored McCain by 2 to 1 over Obama, compared to 3 to 1 for Bush in 2004. In Indiana, which Obama won, Bush's support had been 77 percent, but fell to 66 percent for McCain. There was a similar shift in Ohio, which also flipped from Bush in 2004 to Obama in 2008. Meanwhile, evangelical support for McCain in the South remained 3 to 1 and in some cases even stronger for McCain than for Bush.

Virginia is one southern state that did flip from Bush to Obama, but apparently not due to any major shift in evangelical support. Exit polls showed that 28 percent of Virginia voters were evangelical, and 79 percent of them supported McCain. This was not due to lack of trying by the Obama campaign. At an August rally in Lynchburg, Jerry Falwell's hometown, Obama told a crowd of 2,000: "I believe in Jesus Christ as my savior."

Attracting far fewer people but trying just as energetically, Obama's religious outreach coordinator Shaun Casey led a "Faith, Family and Values" tour through Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and southwest in September. About 70 showed up at a gathering in Harrisonburg, where the local newspaper reported on it. "Somehow, we have allowed our party to be painted as the anti-God party," complained Casey, who teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. and who also advised the Kerry campaign in 2004. Although Obama was raised in a non-religious home, Casey related, he became a Christian when a young man while working among Chicago's churches. "It's been a part of his identity for all of his public life," Casey said, according to the Harrisonburg Patriot News. "He's been telling his own story of faith for years." Casey also emphasized the need to rebut the rumors about Obama's Islam.

Speaking to a far smaller audience of about 15 in Lynchburg, Casey promised that Obama would decrease the country's "level of fear and division and loathing" and "model the kind of pluralism that we long for today," according to the Lynchburg News and Advance. Casey also insisted that a President Obama would reduce abortions through universal health care and reduced poverty. But the Christian ethicist enthused that younger Christians would steer away from focus on abortion and embrace a "basket of moral issues that is bigger--poverty, climate change and the national economy."

Religious activists for Obama have emphasized that religious voters, especially evangelicals and Catholics, need to broaden beyond their supposed myopia over abortion and same-sex unions, issues on which Obama was decidedly more liberal than most in these demographics. But activists such as Casey perhaps partly failed to realize that most conservative religious people, especially evangelicals, are motivated already by a large "basket" of issues, and they are as conservative on economics and national security as they are on social issues.