With God on Obama’s side (maybe)


You would think that if the Los Angeles Times put two reporters on a story, they would make a little effort to pick up the phone. Unfortunately, this was not the case on a recent piece titled “Obama administration has religion on its side.” That’s quite the exaggeration, considering 37 percent of Americans polled said they see President Obama as religion-friendly. That’s not a majority, is it? So why do the reporters make it seem like Obama has captured all religious voters? I can forgive a lame headline once in a while since I hear the copy editor side from my husband, but the story reads like a press release for the administration.

The reporters compare Obama to the Democratic Party, which garnered 29 percent of the vote for religion-friendly.

The findings aren’t surprising. During his campaign for the presidency, Obama courted religious voters more aggressively than most recent Democratic presidential candidates by putting faith front and center.

In July 2008, during the height of the presidential race, then-Sen. Obama pledged to expand a controversial White House program that gives federal grants to churches and small community groups.

Later that summer, during a forum at evangelical Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Orange County, Obama, a Christian, spoke of “walking humbly with our God” and quoted from the Gospel of Matthew.

It paid off.

This analysis seems a bit weak, as if Obama’s policies on issues like abortion didn’t matter–just sprinkle in a biblical phrase here and there and you’ll get them religious voters. Also, I seem to remember that one of the negative takeaways for Obama’s appearance at Saddleback was his remark that determining when life begins is “above my pay grade.” I’m just wondering again why the reporter didn’t pick up the phone and call one of the scholars who worked on the survey. Perhaps a scholar could connect the dots a little bit better than a few observations.

Also, few reporters are still covering Obama’s religious outreach (or lack thereof). Eric Metaxas highlights a bit from a New York Times article that suggests the White House was planning a “non-religious Christmas celebration–hardly a surprising idea for an administration making a special effort to reach out to other faiths.” Actually, that is surprising. As Metaxas writes, “For those of you confused by that, it’s just like a ‘non-religious’ Yom Kippur celebration, or a ‘non-Irish’ St. Patrick’s Day celebration, or an ‘international’ July 4th celebration.” There were discussions about whether or not to display a creche. Why is that piece of info buried in the 13th paragraph of the Times article?

Also, while reporters were focused on party crashers, Ed Stetzer wanted to know why they did not cover Obama’s leading words at his first state dinner where he highlighted his participation at a Hindu and a Sikh religious event.

Regardless of whether you like President Obama or not, it seems like “news” to me that the President would make these his first words at his first state dinner. It seems news to me that he would mention his celebration of major religious events in two religions. Regardless of whether you are a Democrat, Republican, or independent, I cannot picture JFK or Ronald Reagan doing such a thing in their day– and President Obama points out that he was the “first” to do these things in the White House.

Back to the LA Times article, it compares the final election results, but it would be nice to see more numbers. Here’s what we get:

Forty-three percent of voters who said they attend church weekly chose Obama over Republican John McCain, according to the National Election Pool exit survey, a change from recent election trends, in which religious voters overwhelmingly chose Republican candidates. Among occasional worshipers, Obama won 57% of the vote.

I’d like to know what numbers John McCain garnered, and what the exact percentage change was from the last election.

Down further in the story, we find out that 48 percent of those polled viewed the GOP as friendly toward religion. What were Obama’s numbers again? 37 percent? Looks like religion isn’t necessarily “on his side.”

I glanced through the summary of the report and found a few more tidbits that could have been noteworthy. For example, the report breaks down the parties’ popularity vs. friendly-toward-religion.

For Obama as well as for both political parties, being viewed as friendly toward religion is closely associated with popularity generally. Among those who say the Obama administration is friendly toward religion, fully three-quarters approve of the job he is doing (77%), compared with half of those who say the administration is neutral toward religion (51%) and a scant 7% of those who say it is unfriendly.

For the Republican Party, the link is less pronounced. Almost half of those who say the GOP is friendly toward religion view the party favorably (48%), compared with 41% among those who say it is neutral and 21% for those who say it is unfriendly.

The report also breaks down the religion factor for Hollywood (47 percent see Hollywood as unfriendly toward religion while 11 percent say it’s friendly) and science (35 percent say scientists are unfriendly toward religion and 12 percent see scientists as friendly).

Here’s one last bit from the poll that GetReligion readers might find interesting: 42 percent say the news media are neutral toward religion, 35 percent say it’s unfriendly toward religion, while 14 percent of those polled said they view the news media as friendly toward religion. Is anyone surprised?

Photo via DanBrady on Flickr’s Creative Commons.

Print Friendly

  • Dave

    I would not find the story objectionable if it had been given a better headline. Evidently the real story is that Obama is doing better with the religious than Democrats have in the recent past, and better than the Democratic Party as a whole at this moment. These are legitimate reporting points, since the GOP is generally framed as the religion-friendly party.

  • Stoo

    So why do the reporters make it seem like Obama has captured all religious voters?

    They don’t, the 37% is quoted in the second paragraph. I’d agree the headline is misleadingly overenthusiastic, tho.

    That fox piece isn’t useful analysis, playing the usual tired “it’s ok to offend everyone but us christians” stuff. Also Christmas isn’t just a christian festival nowadays, so I don’t see what’s so weird about a non-religious celebration.

  • Martha

    “Also, I seem to remember that one of the negative takeaways for Obama’s appearance at Saddleback was his remark that determining when life begins is “above my pay grade.””

    That’s not quite what he was asked; he was asked when did a baby have rights? According to a transcript up, Rick Warren asked “Forty million abortions, at what point does a baby get human rights, in your view?”

    Now certainly, as someone who has on his CV that he was Senior Lecturer in Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago and particularly as a civil rights lawyer, I would imagine that Obama had some notion of when a person is considered to have rights, or what rights are innate and what rights are legally determined, so the “that’s above my pay grade” remark was flippant. I’ve seen some on the pro-choice side conceding the ‘human life’ element, but adamantly opposed to the granting of personhood, because that would be “elevating the status of the fetus” (I wish I had bookmarked the Cecile Richards statement I saw which talked about ‘humans who are non-persons’, i.e. unborn babies – sure, they may be human life, but that doesn’t mean they have, like, automatic rights or stuff!)

    And that kind of attitude is going to affect us all; if we do not possess personhood as an intrinsic element of our humanity, when *do* we achieve personhood? And is this a legal status, revocable at will by the majority? And what is to stop such revoking of personhood being confined to a “foetus” and not a human at a later stage of development?

    Unfortunately, it seems to be out there that he was asked about when human life begins, which is a different (if related) question.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Correct. He was asked a political question, not a theological question. The press bombed on that one.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Stoo, I think the Fox piece highlights something the Times should have highlighted more–the White House was considering quite a change in tradition. I haven’t seen that discussed elsewhere.

    Martha, I probably should have been more specific to the question Rick Warren asked instead of paraphrasing. What I meant to point out was that Obama’s response may have set him back instead of helped him among religious voters.

  • dalea

    Where the article falls down is in not breaking the figures into ethnic and regional areas. African Americans are among the most church going of all Americans, and their support for Obama runs close to 100%. Latinos also support Obama at high levels. To understand the numbers we need to know who the supporters are. I suspect that the 37% is made up of Black, Latino, Mainline and Jewish attenders.

    We also need to know where these people are. DailyKos has done a lot of analysis on regional variations. In the election, the South went for McCain by something like 53 to 46. Outside the South, Obama won by 58 to 42. Weekly attenders are concentrated in the South, which will again skew the numbers towards disaprove.

    My constant observation is the Religion beat reporters are not very skilled at handling numbers.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    I don’t think the angle is necessarily bad. It is interesting that Obama is doing better than his party. My concern was that the reporters give convincing evidence of why this might have happened.

    dalea, yes, the article could have broken down the various categories into the different religious or regional groups. I’m not sure that the Pew scholars would necessarily see anything significantly different from the past, though it would be a good follow-up to the survey.

  • dalea

    Sarah says:

    I’m not sure that the Pew scholars would necessarily see anything significantly different from the past, though it would be a good follow-up to the survey.

    Basic demographics like race and region should be a part of any presentation. The category ‘weekly attenders’ is vague and needs further clarification.

  • dalea

    Found a map with data on church attendance, at Wikapedia. Interesting that the variation large, from Vermont’s 24% to Alabama’s 58%; about 140% variation. The map shows us where weekly church attenders are more likely to be: the South and Utah. This adds some dimensions to the story.


  • dalea

    Religious Tolerance has a fascinating study on weekly attendance at:


    The title is: How many North Americans attend religious
    services (and how many lie about going)? Covers a number of studies on the subject and concludes that people are not telling the truth.

    Public opinion polls generally do not report real opinions and events. They report only the information that the individuals choose to tell the pollsters. Quite often, their answers will be distorted by a phenomenon called “social desirability bias.” Pollees answer questions according to what they think they should be doing, rather than what they are doing. For example, a poll by Barna Research showed that 17% of American adults say that they tithe — i.e. they give 10 to 13% of their income to their church. Only 3% actually do. 9

    The gap between what they do and what they say they do is closer in the case of religious attendance. It is “only” about 2 to 1.

    This should be used as a caveat on the attendance issue.

  • Bern

    dalea, thanks for the link. I have long held that people being polled about religion will always answer to make themselves more religious than they really are. (Likewise, when questioned about racial attitudes they will always respond to make themselves less racist than they might be.) This may not be lying–technically speaking. Americans in particular really like to feel good about themselves, and may even believe that they act as “socially desirable” as they respond.

    As for the LAT story, it ain’t bad–but the headline is pure rubbish.