Evangelicals Are Celebrating Obama, Too

Evangelicals Are Celebrating Obama, Too

This piece is also available at my On Faith page:
After a week or so of basking in the afterglow of the presidential election, I am starting to get a little grumpy. It’s not about President-elect Obama. Like many other Americans I wept tears of joy when he addressed the nation on the evening of November 4. What is irritating me is much of the post-election analysis, especially as it focuses on religious issues.

Lisa Miller’s Newsweek piece, “A Post-Evangelical America,” is one of the things that has put me in a foul mood. As an evangelical I hadn’t realized that I had been “post-ed” as a result of the Obama victory. Miller seems to think that the election returns have reminded us all of something that had been forgotten by many in the media–that we white Evangelicals are not the only significant religious presence in American life.

I follow the media quite carefully, and had not noticed that we evangelical types were being treated as if we were the only game in town. Nor have I been aware that my fellow white evangelicals have been under any delusions on this point. I, for one, have been deeply involved in interfaith dialogue–an activity that has become increasingly important in recent years at Fuller Seminary, the school that I help to lead. We have been building friendships with many folks with whom we disagree on issues of faith: Jews, Mormons, Muslims, as well as people who claim no faith at all. And, with a student body representing a hundred or so denominations, we have been working hard to keep the dialogue going on the tough issues being debated within the Christian community.

Lisa Miller isn’t the only one who has caused my irritation. In his column in the New York Times on the weekend after the election, Frank Rich exulted over all of the wonderful things he saw in the election returns: no “Bradley effect,” large Hispanic turnout for the Democrats, Jews who helped Obama’s cause in Florida, and so on. There is only one serious matter still to work on, said Rich. We have to continue to combat those horrible folks in California and elsewhere who, having been duped by the Bush administration’s “demagogic exploitation of homophobia” (did the Cheney family know about this?), supported the ban on same-sex marriages –with the help, Rich acknowledges, of 70 percent of the African-American voters.

Were these commentators really listening when President-elect Obama called for the kind of civility that really listens to folks with whom we disagree? Do they really think that the sober tone of his victory speech was a declaration that it is time to ridicule those of us who hold to some conservative values on the so-called “social issues,” in the hope of silencing our voices in the public debates?

I am an evangelical who does not always get very high marks from the Religious Right for the stands that I take. But I do share some of their views on some key issues of public policy. If there is a lesson to be learned about evangelicalism these days, it is not that we have been banned from the public square because of the Obama election, but that we are not as easily stereotyped as the Lisa Miller and others want to think. We have come to an evangelical faith as people from a variety of backgrounds, experiences, and economic levels. We reside in urban and rural areas, and we live in countries across the globe. We represent every “tribe and tongue.”

This means too that we do not all occupy the same place on the political spectrum. To be sure, a vast majority of evangelicals (myself included) are concerned about abortion-on-demand and “traditional family values.” But we are also involved in a rich variety of causes that promote the common good. While the liberal commentators stereotype us as single-issue theocrats, the young people from Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan are in Rwanda working on clean-water projects, the Saddleback folks are addressing issues of HIV/AIDS, inner-city rescue missions are preparing beds and meals for the homeless, and our Fuller Seminary students are advocating for a “greener” campus. And there are many more stories to tell about peacemaking, economic empowerment, and efforts to liberate the victims of the sexual slave trade.

Many of the world’s efforts to care for others have been initiated by evangelicals, often times working in partnerships with people of other faith communities. These efforts and more are motivated by a desire to respond obediently to the call of the Gospel: to love our neighbors regardless of any boundaries.

In my part of the evangelical world, folks have been celebrating the election of Barack Obama. This is true even for those who voted for his opponent–there are many Republican evangelicals who see his leadership as a symbol that America is taking great steps forward from our too-often racist past. Folks like us are praying for our president-elect. And even in my grumpy mood I am praying for some of the same things that Lisa Miller and other commentators have been wishing for. In my prayers I am asking the Almighty to enable us, evangelicals included, to engage in the kind of probing national dialogue that will set aside the polarizations and incivilities that continue to plague us.


  1. While I certainly would have wished for clearer language, the fact that roughly 75% of those who identified as “White Evangelicals” voted against Obama is a damning statistic (here’s a link, but you have to scroll down quite a ways). That’s a HUGE number, and at least some of the commentary you mention is a direct result of that.

    But, yes, they would have done well not to paint all of Evangelicalism (which contains many non-Whites, and that remaining 25% besides) with the same brush, and also to acknowledge that not everyone who voted against Obama necessarily fears him.

    Comment by Mark Baker-Wright — November 13, 2008 @ 6:00 pm

  2. Why don’t you send this as an op ed piece to the New York Times! It deserves a wider audience than those who read your musings.

    Comment by Neil D. Cowling — November 14, 2008 @ 2:15 pm

  3. I agree with Neil. Why not try to get comments like this in outlets like the LA and NY Times? I appreciate the prophetic role that Jim Wallis plays, but you can play a different and just as significant role given your position at Fuller and your career track record.

    My only quibble with this post is the comments about Lisa Miller and Frank Rich.

    As Mark points out, when crazy numbers of white evangelicals continue to identify with right wing conservative American politics and social policy, it’s no surprise when secular observers draw Rich and Miller’s kinds of conclusions. I don’t hold them responsible. I hold us responsible. I’ve been working the margins–like you and a lot of your readers–but at the end of the day we’ve got to take responsibility.

    When we show the capacity to get beyond one or two ethical issues and show the kind of breadth and depth that you’ve demonstrated in your career (though maybe not your blog, on the whole :^) we’ll be better off.

    I’m hoping all of us that are like minded will find more urgent and potent ways to ‘push back’ and redefine evangelicalism.

    Comment by Tom Pratt — November 15, 2008 @ 10:27 pm

  4. I find it hard to understand how a believer in the absolute truth of the Gospel would rejoice in the election of an individual whose whole live is shadowed with an avoidance of truth. One does not have to look far in Obamas life, to find one fabrication after another. Obama’s interview on his religion in Presbyweb on November 12 reveals the inner man. For Obama sin is to not live up to his own standard, whatever that may be. One presumes that all that may lead to political success would be his standard. A lie for the good of the cause is not sin but for the good of the cause.

    His religious beliefs as told in Fasani’s interview should have brought a tear to your eye.

    Stanley D. Johnsen, MD
    Paradise Valley, AZ

    Comment by Stanley Johnsen, MD — November 16, 2008 @ 12:28 pm

  5. I find it hard to understand how one who believes in an absolute truth would rejoice in the election of one who does not. If one reads Obama’s interview published on Presbyweb on Wednesday November 12, it is clear that Obama sets his own standards and sin is not living up to those standards. Thus if one’s standard is the good of the cause then a lie for that purpose is not sin but for the good of the cause. It explains the confidence he has in constant shading of truth. Saying one thing at one time and just the opposite at another.

    If you compare the beliefs revealed in the Declaration of Independence with those of Obama expressed in the Fasani interview, it should bring a tear to your eye.

    Stanley Johnsen, MD

    Comment by Stanley Johnsen, MD — November 16, 2008 @ 1:49 pm

  6. Of course one can be “concerned about abortion-on-demand,” while seeing that as just one issue among many. But I think the most important thing for “multi-issue evangelicals” (MIEs) to explain in order to make their position intelligible is the exact nature of such concern. For here’s the problem. Many evangelicals for whom abortion is — or at least approaches being — *the* all-important moral/political issue of our day think that way because they think that abortion, from the moment of conception on, is murder – the moral equivalent of killing an eight-year-old child, for instance. Thus, abortion in our nation (and in many others) is mass murder on a huge scale. So OF COURSE this will be a dominant issue for them. They — and I, too, looking at it from the other direction — then have a hard time understanding MIEs who (to give a caricature of the reasoning, but one designed to highlight the serious problem) will tell them, say, before voting, “Yes, I’m with you on abortion. But that widespread mass baby murder that happens throughout our land every day is just one issue for me. I also want some nice recycling programs.” Well, one way that that’s a gross caricature is that, in giving such a speech, an MIE won’t explicitly say that they agree that abortion is mass murder on a huge scale. But they also won’t (at least typically) explicitly deny it. As is common for those trying to maintain a “big tent,” that’s left vague & quite open. But there does usually seem (in, for instance, the recent “Evangelical Manifesto”) a suggestion that you mean to be standing with the strong pro-lifers on the issue of abortion, but only demur when it comes to make that a dominant concern, to the point that it crowds out other issues. But *shouldn’t* it crowd out issues, if the problem really is one of mass murder on an enormous scale? At least, some explaining seems called for. Perhaps some MIEs think abortion is a very bad problem, but it’s somehow not mass murder on an enormous scale, and so there’s room to negotiate between that and other important concerns. Or maybe there’s some epistemic component to the position: Some MIEs may think that abortion *might* be mass-baby-murder, but aren’t really sure about that, and so there’s room to be swayed by other concerns. Or maybe there are some MIEs who do think, quite confidently, that abortion in our land is mass-baby-murder, but think nonetheless that these other issues are so important as to compete with that problem. And of course, different MIEs may fall into different of these categories. In that case, nobody can speak for all MIEs on this issue, but these possibilities should be explained: “Some of us think this way, some that, and some this other…” But that’s what needs explaining, it seems to me.

    Comment by Keith DeRose — November 19, 2008 @ 9:58 am

  7. I’m in agreement with Dr. Johnsen; and while we’ve come to expect a degree of dishonesty from our elected officials, the lack of forthrightness on Obama’s part during this campaign was particularly disconcerting. Many people–of ALL stripes–who should have known better were much to willing to give him a pass on any and every issue. Why wouldn’t it be better to have investigated and pursued a greater understanding of who Barack Obama is, rather than to have simply buried our heads in the sand, hoping for the best? It might have even convinced some skeptics (and potential critics) that he IS the right man for the job.

    However, in my case I do doubt that; what IS known about him is enough for me to know that he will be taking the country in a direction that I do not want to see it go – and for that reason cast my vote for a different candidate. I know that many think they DO want to see the country move even farther toward socialism than the Bush administration has already brought it, and they appear to be about to get their wish.

    And that brings me to something Tom said. He said, “all of us that are like minded” should “‘push back’ and redefine evangelicalism.” What does “like minded” mean, Tom? It sounds like you have a particular slant, and by “like minded” you mean those evangelicals who share your slant. What about evangelicals who are also “like minded”, but are of a different “like mind” than you? Is it THAT “mind” that you are issuing a call to “push back” against? Your stated hope to “redefine evangelicalism” seems to me to be more aimed at dividing than unifying. Do you think that changing what it “means” to be an evangelical will change the minds of those who believe differently? No; it will alienate them. If there is going to be a redefinition of evangelicalism, it had best emanate from an open, honest, and broad-based dialog.

    You speak of “crazy numbers of white evangelicals” identifying with (so called) “right wing conservative American politics and social policy” (I assume this is Tom-speak for certain unnamed issues). Aren’t those “crazy numbers” of people entitled to hold an opinion, even if it’s different from yours, even if you think it’s wrong? Do think they came by it illegitimately (e.g., through false or incomplete information)? How do you know that YOUR position was arrived at legitimately? Again, the need is for dialog, not for an “urgent and potent” power grab.

    Comment by Dave Hardy — November 19, 2008 @ 11:52 pm

  8. Mark above –

    Your 75% of white evangelicals number is 75% of 23% of those persons polled who identify as born-again voted for McCain. That’s 75% of 23%. So, it’s not so damning a statistic. What I find far more interesting in the exit poll data that you linked to is how many people who attend church weekly tended to vote for McCain than Obama.

    30% of the people polled identified as protestant.
    26% identified as Catholic. Those who attend church weekly voted in higher numbers for McCain (67% Prot, 50% Cath) although weekly Catholics were pretty evenly divided. How does attending church regularly shape our political leanings and in which areas. To hear Dr. Mouw speak about his own values much in the family values and pro-life areas.

    Fill in the gaps about how it is that the Catholic weekly statistic is actually 49% Obama and 50% McCain and try to understand what other influences are affecting the Catholic vote. My stab at that is there are more ethnic minorities who are Catholic and their economic concerns and immigrant identification with Obama could override the serious pro-life issues that the Catholic church has with Obama.

    Of the 30% who identified as protestant, they did vote more for McCain. Is that culture, identification with the candidate, actual issue concerns?

    You said,”the fact that roughly 75% of those who identified as “White Evangelicals” voted against Obama is a damning statistic.” I don’t understand why you find 75% of 23% damning. It sounds like it’s the evangelical vote against Obama that is damning. First, 75% of 23% is not so huge and secondly, evangelical=voted wrong?

    I also find this contrary rhetoric that rather then attempting to understand why on earth thoughtful voters might actually choose to vote for McCain. I did-for national security primarily, pro-life issues was another, and Obama’s untested leadership another. Frankly, from my perspective the color of his skin meant very little. He was a non-black black candidate, by that I mean his resume does not speak about color but education, tenacity and very, very carefully planned discretion. In other words, he’s a politician.

    It will be an interesting four years. And then we’ll have another four. That’s the very best part of living in the United States.

    Comment by Diane Smith — November 22, 2008 @ 4:46 pm

  9. To Keith DeRose: Maybe we should not detach abortion from a recognition of the larger task of government to do public justice. That is, when it comes to single issue voting, one should, judge according to a wider or broader vision or social and political order. First, government should protect life at all levels of existence. This will mean not only should government protect the unborn but it should protect “life generating and life sustaining institutions” such as family and marriage (to use Skillen’s terminology) as well as water supplies, food production, etc. Second, when people are asked to vote single issue voting they are often asked to overlook other very important things that may impact or affect the well-being of the constitution as a whole. Under such understanding, people are asking voters to overlook corruption, greed, incompetence and bad domestic and foreign policies, any of which might adversely affect the general functionality of the political system. This is far from adequate as a coherent political agenda. Voting for a President is not the same as voting on a referendum on this or that particular issue. When voting for a President one must assess a whole range of questions about the candidates’ character, their fitness for office, their philosophy, their priorities, and what they intend to do about a full range of issues that are most crucial. Some pro-lifers leave us with the impression that they would rather bring down the political and social order than see one life lost (the point I’m trying to make). This is very much akin to the Civil War. Many lives were lost (as well as many wounded) in addition to there practicality being no functioning government or social/political order plus a proliferation of other evils as a result, over ONE issue–slavery. We need to ponder this when certain Christians speak of telling people how to vote.

    Having said that, the stance on abortion or on slavery would have to figure very high. But also the conditions in our prisons that are destroying the lives of many inmates and producing more criminals is a crucial issue, as is US conduct in Iraq and Somalia, etc., etc. The reason why these other issues are important is because what if one were to judge, that neither Obama nor McCain would make the “ending of abortion” a high priority or their top cause? If one could not reasonably expect that McCain would lead Congress to bring an end to abortion, or at least make major strides in that direction, then one would have to assume that a great many abortions are going to continue all through his presidency, as was the case throughout George Bush’s presidency and Ronald Reagan’s presidency. And if pro-life people can feel righteous about their vote IN THAT CASE, it means they are being satisfied with mere symbolism and talk. Now, IF, IN THE MEANTIME all kinds of other human degradations continue such that marriage and the family are further cheapened, and those who do get pregnant have even LESS REASON to want to keep their unborn, then WHAT HAVE WE GAINED? Yes, fight to protect the unborn, but don’t make this the only issue. I think we have to have that broader vision in our sights.

    Comment by Brandon Blake — November 27, 2008 @ 6:53 pm

  10. Dear Dr. Mouw,
    I was very touched by your essay in Newsweek, “Less shouting, more talking” (Feb. 2009). As someone from ‘the other side’ (on Prop 8), I used to see people like you as villains. You essay made it clear to me that you are not. It is also sad to see that the people who proclaim tolerance have become themselves intolerant. Anyway, some of my reasons for prop 8 were that I feel that everyone should be able to decide for themselves what they want to do with their life; that only God will be able to judge us and we must not judge or limit each other (since we are not God). I also feel that if God created certain people with a propensity to be attracted to the same sex, then he should not judge them if it turns out that they are (since this is partly genetic). On the other hand, I can see your argument that allowing same-sex marriage will further erode societal values, setting or even promoting examples for our children that we would not want to set. I believe the difference is one in world-view, whether you separate state and religious affairs. From a religious point of view I can see quite clearly why you would not want to endorse Prop 8.
    Thanks again for your essay, you are absolutely right that yelling and screaming (and villain-nizing each other!) is ridiculous and only leads to more division. Keep up the good work, I certainly appreciate it! Sincerely, Rozemarijn van der Steen (Van Nuys, CA)

    Comment by Roze — February 8, 2009 @ 5:27 pm