Obama, Democrats and young evangelicals

ObamaTrinityThis may seem strange, but I think it would be useful to offer yet another look at Barack Obama’s sermon to his flock at the United Church of Christ convention.

This time around, let’s find out what Washington Post op-ed columnist Michael Gerson — former top scribe for W Bush — thought of the religious images and language in the speech and, this is more important, what the speech suggests about religious issues on the left that the mainstream press will end up covering. First of all, here is Gerson’s summary of the turf that Obama is willing to explore, as opposed to some other Democrats on the scene:

He spoke frankly of his faith: “I learned that my sins could be redeemed. I learned that those things I was too weak to accomplish myself, He would accomplish with me if I placed my trust in Him.” Obama recognized the central role of religion in the history of American social reform, from women’s rights to the abolition of slavery to the civil rights movement. And he made a sophisticated distinction between the religious right and American evangelicalism, rather than lumping them together as a monolithic menace.

For Democrats, the speech was a class in remedial religion.

The problem, of course, is that Obama was — literally — preaching to the liberal choir, in terms of the liberal Christians who were sitting in front of him as he spoke. The more interesting issue for Gerson is the degree to which Obama’s sermon will interest a totally new audience, which is America’s young evangelicals who live in a constant fear of being connected in any way with the Religious Right.

As is often the case, this leads us to scholar John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, who believes there is a door here for Democrats.

Kind of. Gerson notes:

Survey research shows that evangelicals under 30 tend to be more concerned about the environment than are their elders, more engaged in international issues such as HIV-AIDS, a little more open on homosexual rights and less attached to the religious right. This should provide an opening for Democrats. But there is evidence, according to Green, that young evangelicals are as conservative on abortion as their parents and grandparents, if not more so.

Now, as someone who has spent a decade-plus facing classrooms full of young evangelicals (for the most part), this rings true to me. However, it helps to know that many, perhaps most, young Christians are much more interesting in discussing liberalized laws on same-sex civil unions than a state-enforced change in the actual definition of “marriage.”

There is room for political compromise here, but I have met very few young Christians who actually disagree with traditional Christian doctrines on sexuality and marriage. Would Democrats be willing to compromise and meet people in Middle-American pews in, well, the middle on this hot-button issue? Would the party’s leadership be able to convince its secular/religious liberal alliance to compromise?

At the very least, writes Gerson, the left will have to consider — in the wake of the Obama sermon — taking at least three steps. You can read them for yourself, but I want to quote the third one. Hang on tight.

Third, leading Democrats could make real policy changes on abortion, by adopting a more moderate position than abortion on demand. Given the current Democratic coalition, this doesn’t seem likely. But some of us still remember the example of Gov. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, whose liberal heart bled for all of the weak, including the unborn.

In other words, it is one thing to talk about the “legal, safe and rare” option on abortion policy, but that is not going to help Democrats reach out to young evangelicals who want actual compromise on public policies about when abortion is and is not legal. Once again, the issue here is whether Obama and other Democrats can afford to compromise to reach the middle.

The Religious Right is often asked to compromise, because that is how government works. In the wake of the Obama sermon, it is interesting to ponder the compromises that the Religious Left will need to make — if Obama is serious.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Donna


    ++In other words, it is one thing to talk about the “legal, safe and rare” option on abortion policy, but that is not going to help Democrats reach out to young evangelicals who want actual compromise on public policies about when abortion is and is not legal. Once again, the issue here is whether Obama and other Democrats can afford to compromise to reach the middle.++

    I think what I see when I read this is something that I’m not sure evangelicals are too willing to compromise on…birth control and sex education…though I guess it’s possible that I don’t know enough young evangelicals to comment.

    When abortion is rare there’s got to be a cause and the best bet is birth control and education. So how much compromise would evangelicals be willing to commit to to get birth control and sex education to the forefront?

    I’m a Democrat and a liberal, though not Christian, and I know I can revisit some aspects of abortion if the other side is willing to walk in my direction and compromise. But without some serious dialogue about those two things, I’m not sure I can budge much on abortion.

  • Jerry


    You might be right that young evangelicals are locked into specific means and refuse to budge from those means even if offered a different path to the same end.

    And Donna’s point is apt. If young evangelicals insist on a no contraception, no sex education and abortion must be illegal, then there is little room for dialog. On the other hand, I continue to hope that is not the case and that we can focus on eliminating the root causes of what motivates women to have abortions.

    I realize not everyone sees the world this way, but I find the law a very imperfect instrument when it comes to enforcing morality. There were many abortions when they were illegal. Drug abuse plagues us today in spite of them being illegal.

    The challenge to Democrats is to craft specific proposals that at least some pro-life voters can endorse.

    I actually think that Gerson’s second criticism is more telling and I hope Democrats listen very carefully to the following:

    Second, Democrats should emphasize common-ground issues that credit the moral concerns of religious conservatives while calming the waves of the culture wars — such as confronting the toxic excesses of popular culture, encouraging character and discipline in public schools, and promoting religious liberty abroad. Obama’s speech showed little creativity on such matters.

  • Fred Lorrain

    As a Non-denominational Christian man that prays to bring people to Christ by example, I have never fathered an abortion. I was a single Dad for 17 years, and am proud of my children. That being said I’m an American, and I believe strongly in the seperation of church and state. It is society’s job to insure abortions are rare, and safe. I can’t imagine how I’d face my mother if I had children I wasn’t taking care of, or how I’d explain a pregnancy interupted, and she’s a lifelong Democrat! Don’t look to the government to build family values, do it the old fashioned way, build them yourself.

  • Gary Aknos

    As a UCC’er myself, it’s not difficult to “ponder the compromises that the Religious Left will need to make”. Foolishly, they will not compromise.

    Without getting too deep into the internal politics of the UCC, you can look at the resolutions this years UCC General Synod generated (from the same people that attended Obama’s speech) at http://www.ucc.org/news/resolutions-scorecard.html and see what the priorities are for this audience.

  • Donna 2

    What does “Legal,safe and rare” mean? Compromise and meet in the middle are dangerous terms. Taking away a womans right to have an abortion would put us in a repressive state. I would not want to live in this country. I joined the military to “Pay my dues for my freedom”. I am a life long Democrate and a born again Christian. Democrats and Republicans need to be two distinct parties. It is the American way.

  • Harris

    These young evangelicals can function in one of three ways:

    First.they can keep with the old political religion, but here, there revulsion over some of the more regressive aspects (War, plutocratic-leaning economic policy) may lead them to moderate those policies. I can think of several in our community that would fall into that pattern.

    Second, they might compromise. My guess is that they would make common cause on the Environmental issues, and then once a level of political trust has been established, move cautiously to support individual candidates of the left. Again, knowing some pro-life Dems in this category, this seems plausible, as well.

    Third option is to drop out. That the cost of conviction is too high to permit compromise with Dems, and the cost of socially regressive policies is too odious for them to participate. The result is a move to an apolitical stance. That would not be surprising for the young, given that this is the general state of that cohort.

    So the question really becomes, how much of the conviction stays into middle adulthood? What will be the binder that keeps them active in the church? What will be the nature of their churches? Will they keep active? be repelled? Find a middle way?

    In short, the young evangelical is not a fixed cohort, but one that is maturing.

  • Joseph Fox

    Chances are it will be a battle of slogans. “Compassionate Conservatism” is certainly used up for a generation but “Responsible Liberalism” may sell if enough money is put behind it.

  • http://www.lutheranzephyr.com Chris Duckworth

    tmatt wrote:

    The Religious Right is often asked to compromise, because that is how government works. In the wake of the Obama sermon, it is interesting to ponder the compromises that the Religious Left will need to make — if Obama is serious.

    Of course, our country is much more “Right” than the Left of Europe or the hopes and dreams of religious liberals, so it is entirely possible to say that the religious Left makes compromises every single day on issues such as universal health care, welfare reform, education funding (particularly for urban schools), public transit, and the environment, just to name a few. It’s laughable to suggest that the poor ol’ Religious Right is suffering under the weight of Big Government’s oppressive efforts to extract compromises.

    That being said, yes, the Dems need to talk – and act – on issues of moral concern and personal responsibility. Yet at the same time, the Dems can and should remind Republicans of the properly limited role of government by using their pulpits (literal and figurative) to preach about moral issues while outlining policies that keep the government out of the bedroom and intimate lives of Americans.

  • http://www.calchurches.org Elizabeth Sholes

    It is all well and good to court ‘young evangelicals’ – but not at the sacrifice of the principles the older traditional Social Gospel people of faith support. Any party and generation that decides progressives who marched in Selma and against the war are expendable is foolhardy. We lead the way on almost every issue and are the ‘likely voters’ in virtually every state. The decision to prefer evangelicals over social gospel activists imperils the Democrats just as it has the Republicans. We are quite capable of re-registering as ‘decline to state’ and of voting Green or any other way. We stand for principles, and we will not give them up for the Democrats any more than we have done for the Republicans. Do NOT throw us away.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Um, Terry, can you start spiking replies that have nothing to do with how the press reports on religion? Please? There are other forums for giving advice to political parties.

  • Brian

    Actually, Chris, I think the comments are fascinating. They show that on the issue of abortion the Religious Left (to the extent that it can be presumed typified by a few comments on a single blog) will absolutely not consider any compromise, at least in part because that will mean that the Religious Right will “win” (or be so perceived). A reality which must be taken into account by any journalist attempting to cover contemporary American politics, and by any reader attempting to read such journalism.

  • Scott Allen

    Donna 2, you say you “joined the military.” Interesting phrasing…did you finish basic training (“boot camp”)?

    Returning to press coverage, the premise we see in the article (along with several comments) is that one starts with political beliefs and then seeks to provide religious cover for them. It’s sad.

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  • Donna 2

    Yes Scott, I finished basic training completed my four years at the Pentagon with ribbons and medals.

  • http://guywilliams.blogspot.com gmw

    I’m a 33-year-old pastor in the United Methodist Church. I usually self-identify as orthodox and missional, though evangelical can work with some qualifications.

    That said, the author is right on. Many in my generation, like me, are willing and interested in being Democrats, but we’d like to be genuinely pro-life even if we are willing to look at a variety of ways to address the issue. We care deeply about environmental issues, justice issues like HIV/AIDS and help for the poor here and abroad, and, though disagreeing morally on homosexuality, are interested in just civil rights (though not a change in the definition of marriage). But we remain “conservative” on abortion, because we understand that conviction to be consistent with the above values. We are “Sojourners” type “evangelicals” (sojo.net) and want to see the Democratic party make real room for groups like Democrats for Life.

    A moderated abortion stance that was not so excluding of pro-life Democrats on the national stage would clean the Republicans’ clocks in a general election, but the pro-choice base of the party makes this very difficult to get to and, in my view, makes electing a Democrat (something I think a lot of folks would really like to do) president more difficult than it has to be.

  • Str1977

    The problem is that “safe, legal, rare”

    a) is only a mantra ensuring the universal legality of abortion, using the “safety” (for the mother, that is) as an argument and hoping for it being “rare” (without doing anything to achieve that goal) – in this way it is is self-contradictory

    b) is not open to compromise as long as “legal” means “legal under any circumstance” … as the first responses above indicate, in which I can see only calls for the other side to compromise

    And of course, this issue is not a good subject to compromise. The right to life is the right to life and subject to bargain.

    Church and state is absolutely no issue in this. Consider that the Church teaches that “Thou shalt not steal!” and nobody argues that therefore theft mustn’t be outlawed.

    However, one question for tmatt regarding his last line: is it the religious “left” that is asked to compromise or is it the non-religious left that is, on issues like abortion?

  • Str1977

    In other words: is “abortion on demand” a key tenet of the religious “left”/social gospel people?

    As for what Donna2 wrote above, that kind of freedom is a barbaric anarchy.

  • http://anti-itchmeditation.blogspot.com jeff

    I found his comment “my sins could be redeemed” to be the most interesting part of the article. Sins can be redeemed? Perhaps he needs a little better brush-up on his Christianese.

  • http://guywilliams.blogspot.com gmw

    An op-ed by Melinda Henneberger in the June 22 NY Times (registration req’d) barks up the same tree as Obama seems to be.

  • Donna 2

    And I suppose that “Barbaric anarchy” would include the unfortunate folks with Diabetes and Als or the premature babies who struggle because there was no stem cell cure. Str1977 you have never experienced barbaric anarchy. Not the case for unfortunate people who don’t know if they will be alive the next day because a man on horseback killed your husband and children.

  • http://www.BrianYates.org Brian Yates

    The way to reduce abortions is to help pregnant women who face problems that might force them to have an abortion. This approach is embodied in the Pregnant Women’s Support Act sponsored by Representative Lincoln Davis and other Pro-life Democrats and in the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Pregnant and Parenting Student Services Act.legislation sponsored by the Feminists for Life to help pregnant students. Interested people should visit the Web sites of the Democrats for Life (www.democratsforlife.org) and the Feminists for Life.(www.feministsforlife.org)

  • http://samhensel Sam Hensel

    Obama is serious. Thus far, Obama is doing the best job at attracting religious voters to his campaign. He’s leading the way on demonstrating how issues like AIDS, global warming (“creation care”), poverty etc. are moral issues.

  • Susan

    Like Donna 2, I am also a born-again Christian and a life-long Democrat. As other liberal Christians I have worked on behalf of the poor, supported health care coverage for all, gay rights, and environmental issues. I also volunteer at a maternity home for women who want to carry to term but have few resources – to actually do my part to make abortion rarer. I am strongly pro-choice – I do not believe the right to life includes the right to another’s body….and am consistent in that belief. It does not make sense for the Democrats to abandon those of us who have been their loyal base.

  • Str1977


    I see you know a lot about me. But my point was that what you call freedom either does not exist or only fairy land. What you call “suppressive” is indeed civilisation.


    “I am strongly pro-choice – I do not believe the right to life includes the right to another’s body”

    But you do believe the right to whatever, probably privacy, include the right to kill another human being.

    Maybe it makes sense for you for the Democrats to allow only pro-abort, but they shouldn’t be surprised if other people do not think highly of such trampling on the most basic human rights.

    Impression is indeed that one side definitely is unable to even consider the smallest compromise.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Susan et al:

    Please return to the discussion of the press coverage of these issues.

    I have been ultra-busy the past two days and really should have cut this non-GetReligion stuff back quite some time ago.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    “I learned that my sins could be redeemed.” ~Barack Obama

    Since when are sins “redeemed?” Who is “buying back” the sins? People are redeemed. Sins are paid for and forgiven. How many Christians, much less reporters, understand that distinction? This is the 26th. post on this topic but the first to point out the terminology snafu.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Actually, Jeff beat you to the punch in #18. Frankly, I don’t expect a reporter to catch that or make a big deal of it.

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  • http://davidjeffers.thevanguard.org David Jeffers

    Please read my article “Losing My Religion” which is about Senator Obama’s speech at UCC Convention and his claim that “faith has been hijacked.”