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Obama rides religion across traditional divides

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Message Kevin Coe
In winning the Iowa caucuses and the South Carolina primary, Democratic Party presidential candidate Barack Obama carried virtually every demographic group.  You name it, Obama won them: Men and women, young and old, wealthy and less well-off, high school educated and college graduates, urbanites and rural dwellers, Democrats and independents, married and unmarried. He did not win the white vote in South Carolina, but still carried a quarter of white men and women — more than polls had projected, a reversal of what usually happens to black candidates when voting occurs. Such success is notable for any candidate in the competitive 2008 presidential contest. For an African American man who was virtually unknown just a few years ago, there can be only one explanation: God must be involved.  In the politics, that is. Transcending race, income, age, education, and other cultural fault lines is difficult. For politicians in America, an increasingly effective way to do so is by accentuating religious faith. More than 90% of U.S. adults consistently say they believe in God or a universal spirit — prompting George Gallup Jr. to remark that it’s not even worth polling the matter. As a result, emphasizing that one is a “person of faith” has the ability to connect more Americans than any other campaign talking point. This has become particularly so in recent decades. Analysis of more than 15,000 public communications by U.S. political leaders from Franklin Roosevelt’s election in 1932 —  the origin of what scholars call the “modern presidency” — through the first six years of George W. Bush’s administration shows an astonishing increase in religious rhetoric beginning in 1980. That year Ronald Reagan ran a campaign shot through with religious themes and calculated outreach to newly mobilized evangelicals. The approach was so successful that subsequent presidents and presidential hopefuls have followed suit. We call this the God strategy. This approach reaps rewards for any candidate, but for an African American politician it is essential. Faith provides a deeply felt connection that allows — perhaps even compels — many white voters to see a minority candidate as fully human. Yes, history shows that faith prompts some to be more prejudiced; but in the twenty-first century far more draw from their sacred texts and traditions the message that God is colorblind. As Americans struggle to overcome racial biases, invocations of faith by a black candidate go a long way towards appealing to the better angels of all Americans’ nature.  Obama has shown that he understands the political value of trumpeting a mainstream Christian faith — and the danger of having those beliefs questioned. His campaign reacted strongly to two e-mail whisper campaigns, one that accused him of being a Muslim and another that accused his church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, of being anti-white. Obama turned both into opportunities, taking to the airwaves to discuss his faith and putting out a statement describing himself as a “committed Christian.”   All of this has helped Obama reach across demographic and ideological lines to attract voters. To understand just how much, consider an event Obama attended in December 2006 — an AIDS summit meeting of key religious leaders held at Saddleback Church in Southern California, home of prominent evangelical Rick Warren.  There, in front of an audience consisting primarily of white conservatives, Obama was gently chided by Republican Senator Sam Brownback — a favorite among Christian conservatives — for moving in on his territory. “Welcome to my house,” Brownback said.  When it was his turn, Obama took the podium and played his trump card. “This is my house too,” he said. “This is God’s house.” The audience gave Obama a standing ovation, accompanied by enthusiastic shouts of “Amen.” Two months later the junior senator from Illinois announced that he was running for president, opening his kickoff speech with these words: “Giving all praise and honor to God for bringing us together here today.”  As we head toward the Super Tuesday showdowns on Feb. 5 and the rest of the primary season, Obama’s Christian faith and his willingness to emphasize it might well be his saving grace.
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David Domke is Professor of Communication and Head of Journalism at the University of Washington. Kevin Coe is a doctoral candidate in Speech Communication at the University of Illinois. They are authors of The God Strategy: How Religion Became a (more...)
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