June 30, 2008
Religious conservatives can help Barack Obama win in November. Here’s how: stay home or go to the voting booth and cast ballots for Obama in surprising numbers. It could happen. First, let's review.
Last year, religious conservatives were sweating over a possible presidential race that pitted Rudy Giuliani against Hillary Clinton. While religious conservatives found a lot to be nervous about with that match up, abortion policy was at the top of the list. At the time, religious conservatives like James Dobson were talking about a third party candidate or just staying home
Now it is John McCain v. Barack Obama. Religious conservatives should be breathing easier since they have a clear pro-life choice on the card. McCain has a strong pro-life voting record while Obama clearly does not. On abortion, Obama is not much different than Hillary. However, religious conservatives, overwhelmingly pro-life, still seem ambivalent about McCain. Why? The reasons offered frequently revolve around his views on embryonic stem-cell research, campaign finance reform and his inability or unwillingness to engage religious conservatives. Given the Obama option, for pro-life voters, these issues may be important, but are they reason enough to opt out?
Clearly, John McCain is the pro-life candidate and Obama is pro-choice.
Nonetheless, Sen. Obama has been reaching out to religious conservatives. Through his religious community liaison, Joshua DuBois, Obama asked to meet with James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family. Isn’t this a fool’s errand? Obama could never make headway with this group, could he?
Perhaps in light of these aspirations, Dr. Dobson recently took issue with Obama’s use of Scripture in a 2006 speech on religion in the public square. Dobson's criticism of Obama’s speech has been widely reported with the all-important sound bites. According to Dobson, Obama’s has a “fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution” and “confused theology.” On the pro-life issue, Dobson noted Obama’s vote against a bill requiring medical attention for babies who survive a failed abortion, saying, “Am I required in a democracy to conform my efforts in the political arena to his bloody notion of what is right with regard to the lives of tiny babies?”
Clearly, Dobson does not believe he should conform his political efforts when it comes to pro-life issues. However, how will these criticisms impact this year’s biggest political arena? In 2004, 78 percent of the evangelical vote went to President George W. Bush. Since rank and file religious conservatives look to people like James Dobson for guidance, will conservative attacks on Obama translate into a similar outcome for John McCain? Unless something changes soon, Obama may have little to fear from Dobson’s effort.
Dobson has said he will not vote for McCain. He is now offering a vigorous critique of Obama’s views and surely will not vote for him. We know who Dobson is against; but we are not sure who or what he is for.
On the other hand, Obama’s religious supporters are not coy or unclear. Immediately after the news coverage of Dobson’s critical comments, a website was launched by Rev. Kirbyjohn Caldwell—a spiritual advisor to President Bush who is now an Obama endorser—called Jamesdobsondoesnotspeakforme.com. Another religious group called the Matthew 25 Network has launched a fundraising campaign to place religiously based radio spots in response to future Dobson or like-minded attacks on Obama. The Democrat candidate is getting a lot of unmistakable love from his religious supporters.
I submit that the lack of clear support for John McCain from religious conservatives could tilt the 2008 election for Obama. If Obama can siphon off some of that support, he could be competitive in traditionally safe red states. That might be what religious conservatives ultimately enable.
If the issues are not clear to pro-life advocates and religious conservatives, they should examine Obama’s support for the Freedom of Choice Act. This bill would codify Roe v. Wade into law and is one of Obama’s top legislative priorities. They might also want to think about the Supreme Court nominees a President Obama might select.
Pro-life, religious conservative leaders can impact this year’s election by staying home or confusing the rank and file. If they opt out or send mixed signals about McCain, then the one-term senator from Illinois will get a major boost toward election. If religious conservatives want McCain to be elected, they must do more than criticize Obama. They should build unambiguous, public bridges to McCain based on the positions he holds which matter to religious conservatives. Otherwise, pro-lifers should be quite nervous that religious conservatives will either sit this one out or jump on the Obandwagon which is seeking them with open arms.
Warren Throckmorton, PhD is an associate professor of psychology at Grove City College and fellow for psychology and public policy with the Center for Vision & Values. He maintains an active blog at www.wthrockmorton.com.