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The Awesome Blue God -- How Obama Forged A New Faith Coalition

Though the economy clearly was the defining issue of the election, Obama forged a new coalition by luring millions of religious voters who had avoided Democrats in recent years.

In short:

He narrowed the God Gap. Bush beat Kerry among weekly church-goers by 61%-39%. McCain is beating Obama 54%-44% Most of that gain appears to have come from Protestants rather than Catholics

He won Catholics back. Early exit polls indicate he won 54% of the Catholic vote compared to 45% for John McCain. George W. Bush won the Catholic vote 52%-46%. Most of those gains came from Catholics who don't attend mass weekly.

He also improved among white Catholics, according to the early exit polls. Bush got 56%-43% As of now, McCain lead by just 51%-49% This was despite an aggressive push by more than 50 Bishops to encourage Catholics to focus on abortion as the central issue.

Real improvements among Evangelicals. Evangelicals and Born Again Christians made up a greater portion of the electorate this year than last election but that didn't all accrue to McCain's benefit, as predict. Obama improved slightly on a national level, getting 25% compared to Kerry's 21%

But far more important, he made significant progress in the pivotal rustbelt states that won him the election. For instance, evangelicals flooded the polls in Ohio and Obama significantly improved on Kerry's showing.

Some gains among Mainline Protestants – Though shifting toward the center in recent years, mainline Protestants – once a core of the Republican party – - still went for the Republicans in 2004. The exit polls didn't ask specifically about mainline Protestants but it appears Obama improved slightly with this group.

Big gains among lightly religious. Though secular voters already voted Democratic, they did so by an even bigger margin this year. Even more important, a quarter of the electorate says they go to worship services but only a few times a year. Kerry won that group with 54%-45%. Obama won 61%-38%

That's what happened. Here's HOW he did it:

"We worship an awesome God in the blue states," Barack Obama declared during his 2004 Democratic convention keynote. Thunderous applause greeted that line, in part because Democrats felt frustrated that they'd been unfairly cast as a secular or even anti-religion party, and by the political dominance of religious conservatives.

Tonight, Obama forged a New Democratic Faith Coalition (click here for detail). To a large degree, he was able to make such progress with these groups because of the economy. Some pro-life voters went with Obama in spite of his positions on 'values issues,' not because of them.

But Obama nonetheless helped ease their way to his side through a canny set of tactics and strategies unlike anything we've seen from Democrats in years.

Emphasizing His Personal Faith

No Democrat since Jimmy Carter has spoken as openly, and as often, about his personal faith. In his Call to Renewal speech in 2006, Obama chastised some Democrats 'who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word "Christian" describes one's political opponents, not people of faith.'

Indeed, some of his comments would have been mocked by the left had they come out of a Republican mouth. Obama's campaign distributed literature during the primaries that described ""That day Obama felt a beckoning of the spirit and accepted Jesus Christ into his life." One panel on the brochure, "Called to Bring Change," declares, "We do what we do because God is with us." Another described his belief in "the power of prayer," and another, labeled, "Called to Christ," stated, "Kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth and carrying out His works."

This had two purposes: one was reaching out to religious voters. The other was to show him as a mainstream, culturally conservative person. Obama might not be able to bowl, but he sure could pray.

The Rise of the Religious Left

Obama's religious outreach efforts were orders of magnitude greater than John Kerry's. The campaign's religious outreach arm has initiated 950 "American values" house parties. Initially, the campaign had hoped for a significant turnout of moderate evangelicals, especially among the young. That apparently happened in a few key states such as Ohio and Indiana.

Just as significant, the efforts paid dividends among Mainline Protestants, a heretofore Republican-leaning group that apparently went for Obama. Senator Obama's frequent discussions of his personal faith seemed targeted at evangelicals but may have given comfort as well to traditional mainliners. "Obama planting seeds in the evangelical garden has borne fruit in the mainline garden," says Mara Vanderslice, founder of a progressive religious group Matthew25 and religious outreach director for John Kerry's 2004 campaign.

Just as important, a bevy of 'religious left' groups sprouted up since 2004 which ran ads and organized grass roots activity in battleground states. Among the newcomers on the scene: Catholics United, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, Faith in Public Life, Network of Spiritual Aggressives, and Red Letter Christians.

Abortion Reduction

As the campaign went on it became clear that many moderate evangelicals and Catholics agreed with Obama on the economy and the Iraq war but couldn't get past his consistently pro-choice views. As conservatives hammered Obama on his opposition to the born alive bill, he could see moderate evangelicals and possibly Catholics slipping away. At the urging of progressive pro-life activists, the campaign began talking about an 'abortion reduction' agenda – helping reduce unintended pregnancies through education and birth control, and providing financial assistance to pregnant mothers to make it easier for them to carry a baby to term. They included language in the Democratic platform suggesting as such and Obama touted the idea in a few comments during debates. Dial-ometers soared when, during the third debate, he emphasized common ground on abortion and 'sacred sex.'

As the election approached, pro-life progressive ran radio and TV ads pushing the idea that one could be pro-life and pro-obama.


The Vice Presidential Pick

McCain's selection of Sarah Palin created an opportunity for Obama. She revved up the evangelical base (possible by end of the night we'll be saying the 'traditionally Republican core of the evangelical base - or some other qualifier) but created greater concerns among mainline protestants, a group that had leaned Republican.

Meanwhile, Obama's selection of Joe Biden was meant to improve his chances with white Catholics – not because Biden is a theological conservative but because he's a cultural Catholic. Over and over, Biden tied the ticket's economic messages to Catholic language– emphasizing, for instance, 'the dignity of work.' This particularly seemed to help in the Catholic areas of Pennsylvania, where they know Biden well.

(Originally posted at Steve Waldman's blog at Beliefnet.)

Related Topics:Politics
Posted:November 4, 2008 at 10:59PM
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The Awesome Blue God -- How Obama Forged A New Faith Coalition