Evangelicals & evangelicalisms, Religion & American politics:

The Dobson/Obama Rorschach test

posted by John Schmalzbauer

For years Barack Obama has courted the support of evangelicals. Way back in 2006, Obama served as the keynote speaker at the Call to Renewal conference, a gathering of religious progressives sponsored by the evangelical Sojourners magazine. In his Call to Renewal speech, Obama argued that progressives “cannot abandon the field of religious discourse,” adding that “if we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice.” Citing the religious activism of Frederick Douglass, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr., he also went out of his way to praise the social engagement of evangelicals like Rick Warren, T.D. Jakes, Jim Wallis, and Tony Campolo.

At the time, Obama’s speech was hailed by evangelicals and others as a model of religious political engagement. While Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. (a liberal Catholic with communitarian leanings) called it “a road map for Democrats struggling to speak authentically to people of faith,” the evangelical flagship Christianity Today acknowledged that “Democratic Senator Barack Obama gets it mostly right.”

That wasn’t the reaction Focus on the Family’s James Dobson had this summer after hearing the speech for the first time. Taking particular offense at the speech’s juxtaposition of him with the Reverend Al Sharpton, Dobson used his June 24, 2008 radio program to respond, criticizing Obama for acting “as though he’s some kind of biblical authority.” Dobson associate Tom Minnery went further, accusing Obama of “dragging biblical interpretation through the gutter.” In the speech, Obama had pointed out the challenges of applying the Bible to contemporary America, arguing that the Sermon on the Mount “is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application.” Dobson and Minnery also objected to Obama’s claim that “Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values,” calling this a “fruitcake interpretation of the constitution.” Neither mentioned Obama’s critique of those who would remove religion from the public square.

Barack Obama’s campaign and its allies wasted no time in responding to these charges. While Senator Obama accused Dobson of “making stuff up,” the Matthew 25 Network ran an advertisement on Christian radio complaining about the “stones being cast at Senator Obama.” Focus on the Family quickly responded to the advertisement on its webpage, going so far as to produce a video commentary on the topic. Also entering the fray, United Methodist pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell, the African-American evangelical who prayed at George W. Bush’s 2001 inauguration, sponsored www.jamesdobsondoesntspeakforme.com, a site that boasts over 12,000 signatures.

Though the Dobson/Obama debate is itself worthy of analysis, it is even more useful as a Rorschach test for contemporary evangelicalism. Though pundits and social scientists regularly talk about “the evangelical vote,” the contemporary controversy calls attention to something historian Nathan Hatch observed as far back as 1990, namely that “there is no such thing as evangelicalism.”

As a co-founder of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, Hatch did not mean to suggest that there were no religious leaders and organizations flying the evangelical flag. Nor did he wish to minimize the impact of revivalistic Protestantism in American history. What Hatch meant is that evangelicalism is too heterogeneous, theologically diverse, and institutionally pluriform to fit comfortably under a single label. This point was amplified by D.G. Hart in Deconstructing Evangelicalism, a book that traces the invention of the category by scholars, pollsters, and movement leaders. More recently, the journalist Christine Wicker has questioned the claim that conservative Protestantism is a unified, vital movement in The Fall of the Evangelical Nation, noting the over-counting of sheep by the Southern Baptist Convention and the small percentage of conservative Protestants who embrace a rigorous definition of evangelicalism.

The Obama/Dobson debate gets at the same issue by exposing the myth of the evangelical vote. The deep divisions in the evangelical house can be seen in the contrasting reactions to the controversy, suggesting that it may be more accurate to speak of multiple evangelicalisms, rather than a monolithic movement.

On the conservative edge of the evangelical spectrum are organizations like Focus on the Family and the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention. Offering a pro-Dobson response to the conflict, the Convention’s house organ published an editorial entitled, “Dobson is right, Obama distorts the Bible & presents a ‘confused theology’.” Noting the speech was delivered at an event “organized by former Marxist Jim Wallis,” it accused Obama of creating “doubts about the sufficiency of scripture.” Also weighing in against Obama was Vision America Action founder Rick Scarborough.

Though these conservative organizations are not as formidable as their popular reputations, they should not be underestimated. Though the number of faithful Baptists may be grossly inflated by the SBC, the fact that the country’s largest Protestant denomination has already spoken out against Barack Obama will have an impact on the course of the campaign. Likewise, the size and scope of James Dobson’s media empire remains impressive. While the 2006 Baylor Religion Survey found that nearly one out of five Americans had read a book by James Dobson, only 1.2 percent had picked up Jim Wallis’ God’s Politics.

At the same time, there are signs that Dobson’s brand of evangelical conservatism may be losing some of its influence. Michael Lindsay’s study of evangelical elites revealed that many conservative Protestants in the media and political establishment are weary of the rhetoric of James Dobson and Pat Robertson. In a similar trend, the percentage of younger evangelicals identifying as Republican fell from 55 percent in 2005 to 40 percent in 2007. Likewise, the circulation of Focus on the Family’s newsletter dropped from 2.4 million copies in 1994 to 1.1 million today. Compare this with the 600,000 people on the email and subscription lists for Sojourners and the prospects for a progressive evangelicalism begin to look a little brighter.

Since the 2006 Call to Renewal conference, Sojourners and Jim Wallis have been favorably disposed to Obama. Likewise, Senator Obama has been favorably received within the loose movement known as the Emerging Church, an effort to rethink evangelical Christianity in a post-modern age. Responding to Dobson’s critique of Obama, Emerging Church leader and bestselling author Brian McLaren wrote that he was “saddened this week by this beloved Evangelical leader’s religious and political rhetoric.” Barack Obama has also gained a hearing at Relevant magazine, a self-consciously hip publication aimed at younger evangelicals. In an online poll of the magazine’s 75,000 readers during the primary season, 29 percent said that Jesus would vote for Obama (more than any other candidate). Finally, a significant minority of evangelical college students are embracing a new vision of progressive politics. While there are about 2,000 Wheaton College alumni and students listed on the social networking site Facebook, 126 people belong to the group, “Wheaton College, IL for Obama.” Likewise, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s 2006 Urbana gathering focused heavily on such topics as global warming and third world poverty, drawing 23,000 students to the Edward Jones Dome in Saint Louis.

Just as different zones of American society are disproportionately red or blue, various parts of American evangelicalism are more conservative or more liberal. Like its cousin talk radio, evangelical broadcasting remains a bastion of political and religious conservatism. The Matthew 25 Network’s advertisement notwithstanding, you are more likely to encounter evangelical progressives like Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis on National Public Radio or Comedy Central than on a Christian radio station. At the same time, large segments of evangelical publishing, higher education, and campus ministry remain open to a new focus on social justice and environmental stewardship. These are precisely the quarters that will prove most receptive to the candidacy of Barack Obama.

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2 Responses to “The Dobson/Obama Rorschach test”

  1. avatar Randal Jelks says:

    Nice evaluation and one that is appreciated. However, I think there is a key component missing in the piece: race and ethnicity. Although you mention Kirbyjon Caldwell, you don’t explore the issue of how black “evangelicals” evaluate the issues of Obama and Dobson. For example, Caldwell is troublesome to many black “evangelicals” for being so cozy with the Bush administration, especially in light of the administration’s slow reaction to the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. My point is that black “evangelicals” have always been left of their sisters and brothers in the SBC, or those parachurch groups like Dobson’s Focus on the Family. Race and American “evangelicalism” is clearly at place here for black “evangelicals” when they listen to Dobson’s critique. Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America would have been a good book to round this piece out more.

  2. avatar John Schmalzbauer says:

    Thanks to Randal Jelks for the astute comment. I completely agree.
    We don’t have good analytical models for thinking about people like Caldwell (despite the scholarship of Emerson and Smith).

    Historians and sociologists of religion have usually not grouped African-American churches in the evangelical category, despite some overlap in theology and belief. The few black church leaders who have identified with the evangelical label (like Caldwell) are a special case.

    I am interested in Caldwell for his potential to sway white evangelicals, as well as the following he has among some African-American voters.

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