Just as "race" has a whole new meaning in America this week, so, too, does "faith." For at least four decades, white evangelicals have been the religion-and-politics story in this country. Their power, their rhetoric, their numbers, their theology—all have been so dominant that many of us in the media had forgotten that religious faith could be expressed any other way. Last summer, a colleague and I wrote a profile of president-elect Barack Obama that described his Christian faith—a journey that started with a deeply spiritual but not religous upbringing, progressed through a considerable amount of reading, searching and ambivalence, and culminated in an emotional homecoming in a socially active, black church in Chicago. (Article continued below...)
A great many readers of that story expressed the view that because Obama is pro-choice, because he did not go to church with regularity—and because his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, held some radical views and expressed them aggressively—the senator from Illinois was not a Christian. "Obama is without a foundation of faith," wrote one reader.
If this week's exit polls tell us anything about religion, they remind us that there are tens of millions of voters in this country who believe in God, read their Scripture, pray, regularly attend a house of worship—and do not consider themselves born-again Christians. In 2008, 44 percent of Americans who go to religious services more than once a week voted for Obama; in 2004, just 35 percent of those people voted for Kerry—a nine-point increase and the most surprising number in all the religious polling. "It's very cool," says Jim Wallis, founder of the left-leaning evangelical group Sojourners, "that the story is not white evangelicals again."
Other than that, the exit polls provided few surprises. White evangelicals did not like Kerry, and they do not like Obama. Just 26 percent of evangelicals voted for Obama compared to 23 percent for Kerry—a negligible change despite estimates from Wallis and others that Obama's numbers in this particular precinct would be much, much higher. Other faith groups also played to type. Nonwhite religious voters went overwhelmingly for Obama—79 percent, compared to 69 percent in 2004—as did Jews (82 percent compared to 75 percent in 2004). Forty-six percent of Roman Catholics voted for Obama—a factoid that pro-choice advocates were touting earlier this week as an unprecedented victory. Here, a little historical perspective helps: Catholics have voted for the winner in every presidential race since Kennedy and for a generation have been split nearly down the middle on choice, with those supporting the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade slightly ahead.
Drill down a bit, and the numbers get more interesting. In states such as Colorado, Indiana and Florida, where the Obama camp worked incessantly to convert red to blue, the number of evangelical converts to the Democratic Party was surprisingly high. In Colorado, for example, 27 percent of evangelicals voted for Obama, compared to 13 percent for Kerry in 2004.
Overall, the religious vote for Obama did not reflect a massive shift in ideology and priorities among evangelicals but rather muscle-flexing by a coalition of others of faith—including and especially African-American churchgoers and Latinos who tend to be both more religious and more socially conservative than the population at large. The pro-Obama faithful represent a wild diversity of the American religious experience, including mainline Protestants, church-shoppers, the curious, the spiritual but not religious, the heterodox (those who subscribe to several traditions), the intermarried, the community-minded, the intellectually provoked but skeptical, and the traditionalists. Indeed, it includes almost every committed person of faith except those whose church culture insists on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
The exit polls echo findings by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which last year published a massive study showing Americans to be deeply spiritual—90 percent of them say they believe in God—but less and less concerned with denominational orthodoxy. Like Obama, a quarter of Americans practice a faith different from the one they were raised in, the Pew survey showed. Among Protestants, that number is a third. Even a quarter of atheists say they believe in a higher power or a universal spirit.
Darrell Bock is a professor at New Testament Studies at the Dallas Theological Seminary who voted for Obama. For Christians like him, social issues such as abortion and gay marriage were not litmus tests this year. If Christians were concerned about "the economy, competence, our role in the world, the way we've prosecuted the war on terrorism—then they switched their vote and made the middle group larger." George Bush came to power telling an evangelical story that appealed to his base, a story of sin and redemption, of simple faith, of good and evil. This familiar story—and stories like it—has overshadowed every other religious theme in America for 40 years. Obama—his deep religious faith and his peripatetic spiritual biography—shines a light on all other religious paths in America, various as they are, and infinite.