Religion and the Election: What Do We Think We Know?

author: Shaun Casey, Wesley Theological Seminary
author: Alan Wolfe, Department of Political Science, Boston College
published: Sept. 3, 2013,   recorded: October 2008,   views: 2259

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The 2008 U.S. Presidential election was in many ways a watershed event, including the impact of religion on candidates and voters.

Shaun Casey finds some parallels to 2008 in 1960, when John F. Kennedy eventually overcame enough Protestant resistance to become the first Roman Catholic president – just as Obama campaigned to overcome American racism and become the first African-American president. Kennedy applied a “technical rationality to most problems,” says Casey, so he hired staffers to help him present his faith in an unthreatening way. Obama also put together a staff to deal with such “religion problems” as Reverend Wright, the notion that he was a “Manchurian Meccan candidate,” or even worse, “a secular Harvard Law School educator who’s really an atheist.”

Alan Wolfe observes that in the 1960 election, people were tired of eight years of Republican power, and found a young Democratic challenger appealing. The candidate with the real religion problem then was Richard Nixon, who “essentially had to hide his religion: he was Quaker.” Says Wolfe, “What a horrible embarrassment” for a party that “believes in aggressive military posture.” What Wolfe finds of greater interest is the emergence, after the ‘60s, of “the religious litmus test.” He hypothesizes that Jimmy Carter introduced the concept, offering himself up as a man of God in whom a post-Watergate era America could trust. One of the Democrats’ more “admirable” candidates thus “opened the Pandora’s box for Republicans.”

Catching up to current times, Wolfe debunks Karl Rove’s mystique as master manipulator of the religious right, claiming that Bush actually lost the 2000 election, and that Rove was “simply lucky” in 2004. McCain deployed the Rove strategy in 2008, and “it’s been a disaster for him…” Also, McCain is simply “awkward speaking about religion…he’s tone deaf.” In contrast, “Obama the ‘Muslim’ is steeped in the Christian language.”

Casey believes Rove and George Bush “elevated religious outreach to an art form not seen in American politics,” marketing a candidate who was “a specific kind of Christian possibility independent of the reality in that candidate’s life.” Wolfe thinks conservative Christians gravitate to the Republican Party now because they’re “working in big corporations…they’re wealthier.” They see themselves as a marginalized minority group. Wolfe says the “real inheritors of the ‘60s are the Christian right. They’re victimized, oppressed, and …they’re a movement of insurgency.”

Both panelists discern a new sensibility emerging in the evangelical movement. Young people don’t clothe themselves as much in what Wolfe calls the “highly Calvinistic, punitive approach,” and instead embrace openness around such issues as poverty, climate change and genocide. Casey believes this new religious cohort, raised in public schools, has been exposed to ethnic diversity, and interracial and interethnic dating: “They’re far more cosmopolitan,” he says. They’re attracted to Obama, and less likely to oppose things like civil rights and sex education. “A kid in a suburban high school won’t get exercised about gay rights; it’s more live and let live.”

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