Published July 31, 2008
In 1980 Ronald Reagan changed the foundations of presidential politics when he went before an Evangelical group and, referencing the fact that preachers weren’t supposed to endorse politicians, famously declared: “You can’t embrace me, but I embrace you.”
They loved it and voted for him in record numbers. Before 1980, many Evangelicals and conservative Catholics either stayed home or voted Democratic, but Reagan changed everything. Since then, only one Democrat, Bill Clinton, has won the White House, and he did it by winning substantial numbers of these voters. And you have a chance to do the same this year.
Can you believe it? You are the odds-on favorite to be the next president of the United States. But I don’t believe the polls, and neither should you. As things stand now you’re probably going to lose by 5 points. You’ve got your work cut out for you if you want to win. Remember “It’s the economy stupid from ’92? Forget it. Think “It’s The Christians stupid” instead.
A few stats:
Eighty-four percent of Americans call themselves Christians: when you think of this group, think of John McCain or John Edwards — they’re Christians, but they probably can’t really tell you how they became one, and if you asked them they’d probably say because they were Americans or because their parents were Christian.
Next, 47 percent of Americans are Evangelicals or born-again Christians, i.e., people who can give a time and date when they were “born again” or had a transformative experience with Jesus, — but are sometimes confused on the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. You’d probably be in this category, along with Bill Clinton.
Finally, there is the smaller category of “world view Christians,” around 7 percent of the population — think MIke Huckabee or Pat Robertson — because their faith comes with an accompanying worldview, the kind of stuff they read in books by authors like Chuck Colson, Francis Schaeffer or Nancy Pearcey.
Let’s start with the last: Forget the world-viewers. They’re lost to you. Don’t waste any time on them. They won’t care a whit about what you say about abortion today, they’ll just ask why you voted against the born-alive act in the Illinois State Senate, and they’ll have read up on the details of it and you won’t be able to explain it away. Move on.
The larger group of Evangelicals, on the other hand, is ripe for the picking — and you should be able to make some serious inroads here. Keep in mind one thing about these voters: They’re not necessarily conservative. They are the political descendents of William Jennings Bryan and are represented in the modern era by politicians like Mark O. Hatfield, Harold Hughes and Jimmy Carter.
In 1980 they made a bargain with Ronald Reagan, and when they realized that he was with them on social issues, they went along with him on economic issues. But they never really internalized Reaganomics en masse and have been talked into a “let’s use big government to do good” philosophy by Bono of U2, and they are tired of fighting the culture war and ready to sue for peace. As such, they are well within your grasp.
They don’t have a comprehensive worldview, but rather one that is shaped by perceptions and gut feelings. And when they are guided by principles, it’s often a hodgepodge of right and left. Remember — they listen to Dr. Dobson, but they also listen to Oprah, and they often see no conflict in those two radically different views of the world.
If you handle it right, you should be able to get 50 percent of these voters. With this group you should have no need to explain your votes on social issues. Just tell them abortion is a horrible thing, but you want it to be safe, legal and rare. You would never want your wife or daughters to have an abortion, but you don’t believe in imposing morality and the choice should be between a woman and her doctor. Talk about the intrinsic value of the unborn child. Empathize with pro-lifers as you did in the chapter on abortion in The Audacity of Hope. Don’t get into debates about whether a fetus deserves life. Just focus on who decides, not what is decided, and remind them how much you understand and respect the pro-life position.
Keep showing up at places Democratic presidential candidates of the past didn’t show up at. You remember Woody Allen’s quote that 90 percent of life is just showing up? You’re doing an excellent job. You went to Rick Warren’s church, invited Christian leaders to a meeting in Chicago, asked a Gospel star to sing for you, allowed yourself to be interviewed by Relevant Magazine, a magazine for and by young Evangelicals, and even invited its editor to pray at your convention.
Genius. Pure genius. Keep doing it. It’s a winner. In fact, in two weeks you’ll score the ultimate coup when you appear on stage with Warren and John McCain at Warren's church. Warren is all about the ability to influence leaders, and he’s hedging his bets that you may very well be the next president. Just being on the same stage with him and McCain will give millions of Evangelicals who are thinking about voting for you the permission to take the plunge.
Take full advantage of Warren’s political naivete. He’s unlikely to ask you tough questions, because he wants to keep the ability to influence you if you are elected. Make him think this is a possibility. He may ask you about abortion, but he won’t ask tough follow-up questions, so you should be fine. Tell him every abortion is a tragedy and you are committed to reducing the number of abortions in America.
If you get a chance, repeat Warren’s favorite line about not being right wing or left wing, but being for the whole bird. Never mind that it’s a mixed metaphor that actually doesn’t make much sense; it sounds profound and is your key to winning over millions of Evangelicals who don’t pay attention to ratings by the National Journal, but will perceive, from your mannerisms and words, that you are a centrist.
On economic issues, Bono is your man. Follow his playbook and try to get a picture with him. Talk about how Jesus cared for the poor and that government should be in the business of helping people. Remind them of all of the Bible verses that speak about poverty and how God cares for the poor. Stay away from debates on the role of government and whether help should come from the private sector or government. Just focus on helping the poor, and that it’s government’s obligation to use taxes to alleviate suffering.
So far your rhetoric on taxes has been to pit rich against poor. Move away from this and emphasize instead that everybody’s taxes should be raised in order to help the poor and disadvantaged among us. Use words like “shared sacrifice,” and whenever possible, phrase it in Biblical terms. They love that kind of rhetoric and are unlikely to resist any tax hikes that are linked to fulfilling the Biblical command to help their brothers and sisters. Remind them that the Bible says that sometimes humans “entertain angels unaware,” and that Christ commands his followers to take care of the poor. They will eat this up.
Your veep choice will provide an excellent opportunity to reach out to Evangelicals and traditionalist Catholics. If possible, pick a boring, white Christian. Think Ned Flanders. Tim Kaine of Virginia would be perfect. He delivers a state, is a Roman Catholic, and did missionary work in his younger years. He covers all the bases. Sam Nunn and Evan Bayh would do fine, as well. If you understand who you are, you‘ll pick well. Reagan understood who he was — the most conservative candidate in history — and picked running mates who made up for it, (then) liberal Republicans named Richard Schweiker in 1976 and George Bush in 1980.
You are Reagan's Bizarro twin — the most liberal presidential candidate in history — and you should pick a candidate who is the equivalent of Schweiker and Bush in your party: someone who will reassure the center, where elections are won and lost.
Here’s a secret about John McCain and Evangelicals: he loathes them and they loathe him. Almost everybody likes you. But if presidential campaigns were about likability, Ryan Seacrest would be president. They’re not, and especially not this year. Christian voters may not like McCain, but they respect him, and they feel like they owe him one because he spent six years being tortured in Vietnam and then six months being tortured by Karl Rove in 2000.
You’ve got to channel that respect for McCain into something other than people voting for him for president. Make a bold pronouncement that you value him so highly that if you defeat him in November, you’re going to give him a cabinet post; he’s always wanted to be Secretary of Defense. Whatever he wants. The point is, you will show your respect for him, and that way the guy who punches a time clock in Michigan doesn’t feel like he has to screw McCain to vote for you.
Evangelicals used to have a major problem with divorce, but that was before Christian superstars like Sandi Patti and Amy Grant dumped their husbands. Now, they’ll pretend to be horrified, like the barkeep in old Westerns who is shocked when told that gambling is going on in the back room, but they’re OK with it. You’re not going to get much mileage about McCain dumping his first wife, but you should probably still try. Don’t mention the divorce, just talk about Michelle, and show that great picture of you guys on your wedding day. They’ll get what you’re trying to say.
Finally, I know you love your wife, but keep her off the stage before she freaks out every Evangelical male in America. You’re a nice guy, so you had to marry a meanie so that somebody in your household could tell the Girl Scout cookie sellers to go away and the plumber that you would not be paying $1,000 for fixing a clogged toilet. They get it, and some of them married meanies as well. But that’s not what they want to see in a president. Make sure she never disses you in public again. After all, if you can’t get your wife to stop calling you “stinky and snorey” in public, how are you going to gain the respect of Ahmadinejad? Seriously.
You are one of the most remarkable politicians — heck, human beings — in recent American political memory. And you have mastered the art of Evangeli-speak. You don’t speak to Evangelicals, you feel with them, and you are on the verge of winning them back for a generation, and remarkably, with a voting record to the left of Bernie Sanders and Ted Kennedy. It’s an amazing feat no less brilliant than what Reagan pulled off in 1980, and if you pull it off you will have done it by getting them to agree with you and not the other way around.
In the world of honest polling, you’re probably down by 5 right now. But if you keep winning hearts and minds of conservative Evangelicals, you win the whole thing. You’re well on your way.
Mark Joseph is a multi-media producer, author, media consultant and editor of Bullypulpitnews.com. His books include Faith, God & Rock 'n' Roll and Pop Goes Religion.