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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The 2008 Primaries or How the Democrats Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bible in Politics

Michelle Krejci

(A lengthier version of this article, along with further analysis from Simon Staffell, whose insights on this paper I am grateful for, will be presented at the Society of Biblical Literature Conference in Boston 2008.)

In a now infamous incident during the 1988 presidential campaign, George H. Bush told a Wall Street Journal reporter that when his plane was shot down in World War II, “I thought about mother and dad and the strength I got from them, and God, and faith, and of course the separation of church and state.”

Of course. Of course, the thoughts of a 20-year-old American soldier falling from the sky at 120 miles per minute were turned to the love of his parents and the unofficial U.S. policy that sifts those matters that concern the church from those matters that concern the state. Perhaps, that may have seemed plausible to a late-1980s audience. But as the Democrats came falling out of the sky sixteen years later after John Kerry was shot down by the reelection of George W. Bush, their thoughts were turned to their folly of keeping church and state separate.

In the aftermath of Kerry’s defeat, liberal commentators railed loudly to the Democrats, observing that the election was lost mostly due to a lack of moral authority. If Kerry had been able to use the Bible to support his political vision rather than merely to attack his opponent’s political vision,[1] if he had been able to walk into white churches and talk religion, as he did in black churches,[2] if he had been able use biblical rhetoric to promote his stance on economic policies rather than defend his stance on abortion, then maybe the millions of evangelicals who voted for Bush would have given Kerry their vote of confidence. The Democrats walked off the public stage to regroup for the election of 2008, asking themselves the question Casey Stengel once raised after a momentous defeat: “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

The game, for both the Democrats and the Republicans, is to foster effectively a confidence of moral authority using a language that speaks to a majority of Americans. The 2008 primaries turned into a nationwide search for someone who could play the game, and that public search taught the Democrats to stop worrying and love the Bible in politics.

As analysis of the 2004 elections confirmed suspicions that Kerry’s defeat had much to do with the party’s poor command of the language of moral values,[3] the unofficial early search for potential 2008 candidates honed in on one qualification: the ability to strike a cord that resonates with the moral margins of the nation. Critics had complained that journalists had taken their eye off the influence of religion;[4] now the media’s ears were finely tuned to listen to religious rhetoric.

In January of 2005, when Sen. Hillary Clinton told an audience at a fundraiser that there was a “false division” between faith-based approaches to addressing social ills and the state interest in achieving the same ends, coverage of the event could not help but speculate that she was warming up to the new rules of the 2008 presidential election.[5] One year later, when Clinton opposed a Republican-sponsored bill on immigration by declaring, “It is certainly not in keeping with my understanding of the Scripture,” the New York Times rewarded her with a headline that rang with presidential aspirations: “Mrs. Clinton Says GOP’s Immigration Plan Is at Odds with the Bible.”[6]

But the new scouting strategy was digging up some surprises. The junior senator from Illinois responded to Alan Keyes, his opponent in the 2004 election who has claimed that Jesus would not vote for Obama, by seeking “reconciliation between faith and democratic pluralism.” Despite the fact that the camera adds ten pounds of insincerity, here was a nascent politician who could appear genuine and self-reflective in the public spotlight while urging, “Before we get carried away, let’s read our Bibles.”[7] Whatever other qualifications Obama might have had, it seemed the Democrats had found what Rabbi Michael Lerner had been pleading for: a new Martin Luther King who could begin “the process of rebuilding a spiritual/religious Left.”[8]

On the Republican side, the prized religious vote, which had been included in the G.O.P. presidential candidates’ goodie bag for several election cycles, meant that there was no need for the party to shift the moral weight that President Bush had already distributed across the issue of foreign policy and abortion. In fact, before Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister whom Jim Wallis swooned could “out-preach, out-charm, and out-Bible almost anyone,”[9] shocked the party with his Iowa win, the leading candidates seemed too assured of their inheritance.

Articles routinely introduced former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani as a thrice-married, pro-choice, pro-gay marriage Catholic with a strained relationship with his two children. Giuliani boldly responded by invoking the Bible when asking voters to withhold judgment on his personal life.[10] Sen. John McCain, though he made amends with Rev. Jerry Falwell in a gesture widely interpreted as preparation for his 2008 run,[11] paid such little attention to religion at the start of his campaign that his religion-outreach aides quit.[12] As late as December of 2007, he was still expressing surprise that religion had become such an issue.[13] When it came to former Governor Mitt Romney who is a Mormon, the editors of the National Review explicitly urged him not to talk about his religion.[14]

But with religious voters still the Republicans’ constituency to lose, the potential candidates hardly needed party chairman Howard Dean’s encouragement to persuade voters that “the core values of the Democratic Party…also are core values of an awful lot of evangelicals.” By the summer of 2007, all the Democrats’ speeches were, as Time magazine phrased it, “marinated in Scripture.”[15]

If the 2000 and 2004 elections were a reaction to an experienced assault on Christian values, the 2008 election seemed propelled by a claustrophobia of values, a feeling that the definition of values had become too small. A growing number of American voters began to feel that President Bush’s religion makes him more closed-minded.[16] The task for the Democrats then was to persuade voters that they could speak to broader values, and for that they turned to the alchemy of biblical rhetoric: an art form that, if done right, could use an invocation of Jesus to turn social policy into voter gold.

This was the lesson the Democrats had learned from Rev. Rick Warren, whom Dean described as a man bringing people together with things “that really are in the Bible.” In 2006, Warren told a Fox News reporter, “Jesus’ agenda is far bigger than just one or two issues”; Warren named poverty, disease, illiteracy, corruption in government, and sex trafficking among the forgotten causes. Warren’s vision ignited a What Would Jesus Do? zeitgeist not seen since the WWJD wristband craze of the nineties.[17] If anyone could convince rugged individuals of the virtues of federally mandated social welfare, it was Jesus.

Meanwhile, the Republicans were having a more difficult time working Jesus’ name into their platform. When asked what Jesus would do about the death penalty, Huckabee could respond only that Jesus would not run for public office. Michael Gerson in the Washington Post declared late in the game that the Jesus of the right, the Jesus that preached compassion as a private, rather than public, virtue, did not exist.[18] Regardless of whether Gerson is theologically right, that Jesus certainly did not exist in the 2008 election.

With Democrats sheltering their social policy within Jesus’ message, Republicans worked to maintain their stronghold on religious language in matters of foreign affairs. Organizations such as Faith 2 Action and Wall Builders released reports that included the candidates’ response to “some of the most important issues to the values voters.”[19] Included among the issue of marriage and abortion were Radical Islam, Globalism, and the War in Iraq. As two researchers phrased it, the Christian Right has focused on “running against Sodom and Osama.”[20] With Jesus conscripted to defend Sodom, Republicans focused on Osama.

In November 2007, Pat Robertson endorsed Giuliani, declaring that the “overriding issue” in the race is defending against the “bloodlust of Islamic terrorists,” and called abortion “only one issue” of importance.[21] In an interview with David Brody of the Christian Broadcast News in late January 2008, McCain told Brody that he would be able to pull his party together with his stance on foreign policy, expressing his belief that a majority of Republicans share his take on theodicy:

I really believe the majority of our religious conservatives are more concerned than anybody else about the threat of radical Islamic extremism. They know what an evil this is. They know what a threat it is to everything we stand for and believe in. So I believe I can appeal to those large numbers of conservatives who I think I can prove am best able to confront that evil.[22]

With talk of evil and the “message of Jesus” being applied to social and foreign policy, and the memory of President Bush’s explicit application of theology to his policy, the worldviews of the candidates became a key study in the public dissection of their characters. The American historian Henry Steele Commager had observed, “During the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, religion prospered while theology slowly went bankrupt.” The 2008 primaries went a long way to show that in the twenty-first century, theology still has currency.

McCain found it necessary to begin to identify as a Baptist rather than an Episcopalian. Giuliani was asked to square his Catholic identity with his three divorces. Romney publicly addressed his Mormon faith, and, in the later half of the campaign, the GOP’s vice presidential nominee, Gov. Sarah Palin, struggled with her ties to Pentecostalism.

But it was the theology of Obama’s faith that proved to be the watershed moment of biblical rhetoric in the election.

Short clips of Obama’s pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, shouting “God damn America!” and telling his audience, only a few days after 9/11, that the “chickens had come home to roast,” lent a dark and pessimistic veil to an otherwise hopeful message about changing America.

In the spring of 2008, commentators began calling for the brakes on the religious rhetoric. Walter Shapiro of Salon said: “If the Democrats lose—especially if the Wright-way-to-pray issue haunts Obama—then the only response from partisans will be an anguished, ‘Oh, God!’”[23] Katha Pollitt chided, “the Democrats have got religion and everything that comes with it—weirdness, wrath, insult, blowhardiness, vanity, paranoia, divisiveness and trouble.”[24]

And with that, religious rhetoric began to be perceived not as the light guiding candidates and their voters into uncharted political territory, but as the smoke masking politically insolvable ideologies. The dark cloud of suspicion that now hung over the religious rhetoric meant that the moment was ripe for a previously fatuous suspicion to be aired.

Since Obama first entered the political stage in 2004, there had been reports of the religious reverence with which Obama’s supporters spoke of their candidate. Morgan Freeman summed up the mood in May of 2007. When Freeman came over to shake hands with the senator, Obama said, referring to the film Deep Impact: “This guy was president before I was.” Freeman responded, referring to Bruce Almighty, “And this guy was God before I was.”[25]

But “Obama the Anti-Christ” had been around as long as “Obama the Messiah,”[26] and by the end of the primaries, even liberal commentators had begun to grow weary of the Messiah. Joe Klein, writing for Time magazine, confessed that there is “something just a wee bit creepy about the mass messianism.” Kathleen Geier, noting the behavior of Obama’s supporters, wrote, “This sounds more like a cult than a political campaign.”[27] It was time for Obama the Anti-Christ to offer himself for public consideration.

The McCain campaign needed to add little commentary to their political ad, subtly titled “The One,” which juxtaposed images of Obama with images of Charlton Heston playing Moses; the subtext of the ad—Obama is a wolf in sheep’s clothing—had been planted itself months before. With Obama as the mass-appointed messiah, conservative pundits had long responded by arguing that while Obama may act like a divine messenger, his policies could not be farther from the message of Scripture.

James Dobson had accused Obama of “distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own world view.” Michael Knox Beran of the National Review wrote that Obama has made the “politics of redemption” less biblical and more about himself.[28] Joel S. Hirschhorn of the Atlantic Free Press commented that the “rollicking rhetoric and pulsating platitudes” of Obama’s empty words would lead us to the “Obama Rapture.”[29] Similarly, Kyle-Anne Shiver of the American Thinker warned that Obama was leading America’s young, pied-piper style, into an unknown future that was possibly antithetical to everything we believe in.[30] McCain’s ad was just a widening ripple in the aftermath of throwing the Bible into the campaign; the candidates who rooted themselves in the Bible could only be uprooted with the Bible.

The appeal of biblical rhetoric is that it takes politics away from the punditry. It is a language that lacks the details the average pundit can dissect, while conveying the nuance that the average American can understand. The message that Jesus takes care of the poor is more poignant and solvable than the political arguments for a communitarian government. The message that Obama is not Jesus is more efficient at refuting those unaired details than making the point with an analysis of the philosophy.

The McCain ad was the only appearance of Obama the Anti-Christ that received national attention, but even then, with more nuance than substance, the pundits of New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal took the stance of “let urban myths lie,” while the online myth slayer, Snopes.com, tackled the issue head-on.[31] But in the online world, where rumors go to build communities, “the Anti-Christ” lives on in T-shirts, blogs, and chain mail, which one South Carolina congressman was caught sending to his own constituency.[32]

The Bible has long been the refuge of those seeking solace from the harsh partisan rhetoric that has saturated our national conversations. The questions that divide the U.S.—Is it morally acceptable to abort an unborn fetus? Is it the government’s job to make our lives better? When and how should we go to war?—are not just unanswered, they may be unanswerable. With the Bible, there is a chance that we may find common ground.

The problem, of course, is that it is the kind of common ground that could grow just about anything. It can grow wars and Supreme Court cases, a national K-12 curriculum and welfare reform, universal health care and immigration law. But the seeds we nurture with the Bible cannot be uprooted with constitutional law; they can be uprooted only with more biblical rhetoric.

With all candidates showing reverence to the rhetorical hegemon, we may have found ourselves in a rhetorical Ponzi scheme, passing along bad investments in biblical rhetoric until someone is left with a mess to clean up. When policies pass through national ballots and Congress in the language of the Bible, our national conversations become consumed in what the Bible says rather than what our country is doing.

Adlai Stevenson, arguably the father of the modern Democratic Party, in his 1952 speech to the American Legion, once warned, “to strike the freedom of the mind with the fist of patriotism is an old and ugly subtlety.” Yet it is an equally old and subtle ugliness to strike at the margins of our moral identity with the fist of biblical tradition.

Michelle Krejci, University of Sheffield

Notes

[1] Associated Press, “Bush camp criticizes Kerry’s use of Bible quote,” USA Today n.p. (March 29, 2004). Online: http://www.usatoday.com/news/politicselections/nation/president/2004-03-29-bush-bible-quote_x.htm.

[2] A suggestion made by Leon Panetta shortly after Kerry’s defeat. Quoted in Carla Marinucci, “In postmortem on Kerry bid, Dems seek clues to life,” San Francisco Chronicle (November 7, 2004). Online: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2004/11/07/MNGQO9NJOC1.DTL&type=printable.

[3] John C. Green and Mark Silk, “Why Moral Values Did Count,” Religion in the News n.p. (Spring 2005). Online: http://www.trincoll.edu/depts/csrpl/RINVol8No1/WhyMoral%20ValuesDidCount.htm

[4] Mark J. Rozell “What Christian Right?” Religion in the News n.p. (Spring 2003). Online: http://www.trincoll.edu/depts/csrpl/RINVol6No1/What%20Christian%20Right.htm.

[5] See, for example: Michael Jonas, “Sen. Clinton urges use of faith-based initiatives,” Boston Globe n.p. (January 20, 2005). Online: http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2005/01/20/sen_clinton_urges_use_of_faith_based_initiatives/.

[6] Nona Bernstein, “Mrs. Clinton Says G.O.P.’s Immigration Plan Is at Odds with the Bible,” New York Times n.p. (March 23, 2006). Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/23/nyregion/23hillary.html?scp=1&sq=Mrs.%20Clinton%20Says%20GOP%92s%20Immigration%20Plan%20Is%20at%20Odds%20with%20the%20Bible&st=cse.

[7] David Espo, the reporter from the Associated Press who covered the event through the angle that Obama “chastised” Democrats, hinted in his widely distributed article that Obama was a contender for the 2008 presidential campaign when he added: “Obama responded with a noncommittal laugh this spring when asked whether he wants a spot on the national ticket in 2008” (“Obama: Democrats Must Court Evangelicals,” AP n.p. (June 28, 2006). Online: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/06/28/AR2006062800281.html.

For a transcript of Barack Obama’s speech, see: “Call to Renewal Keynote,” at the Call to Renewal’s Building a Covenant for a New America Conference in Washington, D.C. June 28, 2006. Online: http://obama.senate.gov/podcast/060628-call_to_renewal_1/.

[8] Rabbi Michael Lerner, “The Democrats Need a Spiritual Left,” Common Dreams n.p. (November 4, 2004). Online: http://www.commondreams.org/views04/1104-01.htm.

[9] Jim Wallis, “Political Earthquakes,” Huffington Post n.p. (January 8, 2008). Online: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jim-wallis/political-earthquakes_b_80422.html.

[10] Carl Campanile and David Finnigan, “Rudy a Bible-Stumper on Christian TV Net,” New York Post n.p. (September 29, 2007). Online: http://www.nypost.com/seven/09292007/news/nationalnews/rudy_a_bible_stumper_on_christ.htm.

[11] For example, ABC’s World News Tonight reported the story with the opening line: “This week Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has been on a tour of key states like Iowa and New Hampshire, apparently laying the groundwork for a possible presidential campaign.” (Dan Harris, “Making Right Turn, McCain Embraces Falwell,” ABC News n.p. (April 14, 2006). Online: http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/Politics/story?id=1843506 ).

[12] Dan Gilgoff, “Two of McCain’s Religion-outreach Aides Quit,” CBS News n.p. (June 1, 2007). Online: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/06/06/usnews/whispers/main2892710.shtml.

[13] Andante Higgins, “McCain: Surprised by Focus on Candidates’ Religion,” in From the Road [blog], CBS News n.p. (December 12, 2007). Online: http://www.cbsnews.com/blogs/2007/12/12/politics/fromtheroad/entry3613350.shtml.

[14] Kathryn Jean Lopez, et al., “Romney’s Religion,” National Review Online n.p. (November 16, 2007). Online: http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=MGQ4YmM4Y2U3Yjc3MzYzNDQwYzk3YTVjMTI5YTkwNzg=.

[15] Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, “How the Democrats Got Religion,” Time Magazine n.p. (July 12, 2007). Online: http://www.time.com/time/politics/article/0,8599,1642649,00.html.

[16] “In May 2004, half (49%) of American voters said President Bush’s faith made him a strong leader while only 36% said it made him too closed-minded. Today, voters have reversed their opinion about the role of Bush’s faith: 50% now say it makes him too closed-minded and 34% say it makes him a strong leader,” (Pulsar Research & Consulting, “TIME Poll: Survey on Faith and the Presidential Election,” (May 10-13, 2007), p.7. Online: http://www.pulsarresearch.com/PDF/TIME_Report.pdf.

[17] Sen. John Edwards said that Jesus would be appalled at us for “ignoring the plight of those around us who are suffering and our focus on our own selfish short-term needs” (Interview with David Kuo, “John Edwards: ‘My Faith Came Roaring Back,’” Beliefnet.com n.p. (April 2007). Online: http://www.beliefnet.com/News/Politics/2007/03/John-Edwards-My-Faith-Came-Roaring-Back.aspx). Obama said that he needed only to ask himself “How would Jesus feel about somebody not being able to visit somebody they love when they’re sick?” to conclude that he supported civil marriage (Robin Mazyck, “CBN News Talk to Barack Obama,” Christian Broadcast News n.p. (November 11, 2007). Online: http://www.cbn.com/CBNnews/266198.aspx). Clinton had voted against an immigration amendment that would have “criminalized Jesus.”

[18] Michael Gerson, “The Libertarian Jesus,” Washington Post n.p. (May 30, 2008). Online: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/05/29/AR2008052903262_pf.html.

[19] Faith 2 Action, “Values Voter Report – Republican Primary,” Faith 2 Action n.p. (September 17, 2007). Online: http://www.lc.org/media/9980/attachments/ValuesVoterReport-RepPrimary.pdf. See also, “Values Voter Report – Democratic Primary,” Faith 2 Action n.p. (September 2007). Online: https://www.liberty.edu/media/9980/attachments/valuesvoters-demprimary.pdf.

[20] Chip Berlet and Pam Chamberlain, “Running Against Sodom and Osama: The Christian Right, Values Voters, and the Culture Wars in 2006,” Political Research Associates n.p. (October 2006). Online: http://www.publiceye.org/christian_right/values-voters/Values%20Voters-09.html.

[21] Michael Cooper and David D. Kirkpatrick, “Pat Robertson Endorses Giuliani for President,” New York Times n.p. (November 7, 2007). Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/07/us/politics/07cnd-robertson.html.

[22] David Brody, “John McCain Interview on The Brody File” Christian Broadcast News n.p. (January 28, 2008). Online: http://www.cbn.com/CBNnews/311774.aspx.

[23] Walter Shapiro, “The Democrats’ God Problem,” Salon.com n.p. (April 30, 2008). Online: http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2008/04/30/Democrats_religion/.

[24] Katha Pollitt, “Reverend should be irrelevant,” The Chicago Tribune n.p. (May 6, 2008).

[25] Hudson Morgan, “Dining for Dollars,” Men’s Vogue n.p. (May 2007). Online: http://www.mensvogue.com/business/politics/feature/articles/2007/04/status_report_obama?currentPage=1.

[26] An entry on an otherwise unknown blog asks, “Is Obama the Anti-Christ?” ([August 06, 2004] Available online: http://www.apostropher.com/blog/archives/001712.html). It has generated over 2,000 comments so far and continues to receive attention after being listed number 17 in Nerve’s “50 Buzziest Blogs of all times”.

[27] Kathleen Geier, “Barack Obama Is Not Jesus,” TPM Café n.p. (February 5, 2008). Online: http://tpmcafe.talkingpointsmemo.com/2008/02/05/barack_obama_is_not_jesus/#more.

[28] Michael Knox Beran, “Obama’s Messianic Politics,” National Review n.p. (March 6, 2008). Online: http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=MGEzMzc0ZjgzMGY0NGJmMzRmZjY4M2I1OGUzYTRmNjE=.

[29] Joel S. Hirschhorn, “Delusional Hope: The Obama Rapture,” Atlantic Free Press n.p. (February 22, 2008).

[30] Kyle-Anne Shiver, “Obama’s Politics of Collective Redemption,” American Thinker n.p. (February 11, 2008). Online: http://www.americanthinker.com/2008/02/obamas_politics_of_collective.html.

[31] Barbara and David P. Mikkelson, “Obama as Anti-Christ,” Snopes.com n.p. (April 24, 2008). Online: http://www.snopes.com/politics/obama/antichrist.asp.

[32] Stuart Watson, “Mayor ‘just curious’ if Obama is antichrist,” Charlotte Observer n.p. (September 28, 2008). Online: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/104/story/220041.html.

Citation: Michelle Krejci, " The 2008 Primaries or How the Democrats Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bible in Politics," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2008]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=792

 
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