It has been lurking over Barack Obama and John McCain ever since they entered the primaries and more importantly since they secured their presumptive nominations from their respective Parties. However, it had been in the background and not been able to force itself to the forefront of people’s attention. Until now that is. Last Saturday saw its introduction to the Presidential election. The it that I speak of is religion, and more to the point, Christianity. The Christian forum in California last Saturday brought both Senators together for the first time in the campaign. Although they were not drawn into a debate with one another, the forum was nonetheless very important, and could prove to be so in the long run.
Religion matters in American politics. Politics matters to religion. The relationship is not always smooth, but they do seem to go hand in hand. Christianity is very strong in America, much more so than in Europe. Estimates say that one in four Americans is an Evangelical Christian. They are a huge voting bloc to be targeted by the Presidential candidates. With a population of nearly eighty million, the Evangelical Christians are understandably very influential in American society. This influence is felt quite prevalently in Washington. Christian lobby and pressure groups are in fact some of the best funded and important. The reach and influence of the Evangelicals is great. They are deeply involved in matters such as education, civil partnerships and abortion. But also on foreign policy issues such as the so-called American “civilising mission” to the third world, and on Middle Eastern policies especially concerning Israel.
These Lobby Groups are able to raise large amounts of money, via donors and Church donations, thus making themselves influential in and around Congress. They also receive huge support from Senators and Representatives who share the same faith. Religion is very prominent in American politics, therefore it is important to a large number of voting Americans who there President is, and more importantly, how much their faith means to them.
The Christian Forum in California was a chance for both Presidential candidates to woo America’s Christians. For John McCain, the forum was of huge importance. The Christian right does not trust him, and they have not taken to him with open arms, like they did with George W Bush. There seems to be a distrust of the Arizona Senator, which first emerged when McCain challenged Bush in the Republican Primaries back in 1999. Evangelical Christians tend to vote Republican. The polices of the Republicans go hand in hand with the wishes of Evangelical Christians. However, the Evangelical camp could prove to be McCain’s and the Republican’s undoing in the 2008 Presidential Election; such is the animosity they feel towards John McCain.
Yet, Barack Obama is a whole different beast for the Evangelicals. He is a professed Christian. His hour long appearance at the faith forum showed that his Christianity runs deep, it means a lot to him. He was very in depth and open about his faith. You could sense that the crowd appreciated his honesty. It was crucial Obama showed his religious side, because it was a side of him that has been tainted over the past months, or even years. Obama has had to put up with the rumours that he is a Muslim (some 10% of Americans still think Obama is a Muslim). He has had to deal with the same old drivel: Obama sounds like Osama; his middle name is Hussein; the photos of him in Kenyan dress etc. All of these factors have made Barack Obama seem alien to the Evangelical Christians. Their distrust of McCain was equalled and then some, by Senator Obama. Therefore, the forum gave Obama the chance to put the record straight. He did an ok job. But not a great job. McCain came out on top with his “conception starts at birth” speech, compared to Obama’s not so decisive “above my pay grade” response, when asked about when life begins.
This proves he still has a long way to go to win over this hardcore Republican bloc. Issues such as gay rights and abortion may prove to be a stumbling block for Obama in this case. Yet if he can make some progress with the Christian right it might go a long way to helping him win in November. Maybe his openness on religious and moral matters will endear him to the right, but it may also alienate himself from the left. The right balance needs to be found for the Illinois Senator to win this very open Presidential race.
By Stewart Munn