McCain’s God Gap

I didn’t watch the Rick Warren thing last night; I have too much respect for Christianity to watch it debased like that. But I think meeting the white evangelical crowd was something Obama needed to do, if only so they can see he’s just a guy and not the Antichrist.

My entirely subjective opinion is that Obama is the more genuinely religious of the two candidates. McCain is just going through the motions. This may be why most religious voters prefer Obama.

A study released this week by the Barna Group, a Christian research and consulting firm based in Ventura, Calif., finds that Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, currently enjoys the support of more faith-driven voters, including Christians, than his Republican rival.

The poll, which shows Obama ahead of McCain 43 percent to 34 percent among likely voters, also finds Obama leading in 18 of 19 different religious faith communities defined by the survey’s strict standards. McCain leads in only one—evangelicals. In that category, however, the Republican has a huge lead, 61 to 17.

The problem is that in the U.S., and in particular U.S. news media, evangelicals (especially white ones) are the only religious people who count.

The Barna poll uses unusual methodology. Many pollsters take voters at their word when they say they are evangelical Christians, but the Barna survey is unusually specific about its categorizations. It asks voters a battery of nine questions about their religious beliefs—whether, for example, they think the Bible is accurate in everything it teaches, and whether they feel a personal responsibility to share their beliefs about Christ with non-Christians. Only when all nine questions are answered affirmatively are voters categorized as “evangelical.”

That might be a bit strict. However, I still haven’t recovered from the 2003 Pew poll that determined how “religious” someone is by whether they believe in a literal Judgment Day.

The Barna pollsters err in thinking that “evangelical Christianity” is primarily religious. It is not; it is tribal. It is identity. A large part of those who fervently believe themselves to be evangelical Christians don’t know Jesus’ teachings from eggplant.

This significantly reduces the survey’s estimate of the total number of evangelical voters. By Barna’s estimate, only 8 percent of U.S. voters are truly evangelical. “That is a much smaller group than you might think,” says George Barna, the poll’s director.

Ah, but the tribe is much bigger.

The survey shows that the much debated “God gap” between Republicans and Democrats among Christian voters as a whole may not be nearly as dramatic as it appeared in 2004. Indeed, among those who self-identify as “evangelical” but who don’t fit the Barna group’s criteria, McCain holds only a 39 to 37 lead over Obama, with nearly 1 in 4 voters saying they are still undecided.

Among most other Christian groups, the Democratic candidate continues to enjoy a comfortable lead. Obama has a huge advantage among non-Christians, atheists, and agnostics, but he also leads among nonevangelical, born-again Christians (43 to 31), Christians who are neither born-again nor evangelical (44 to 28), Catholics (39 to 29), and Protestants (43 to 34). “If the current preferences stand pat,” says Barna, “this would mark the first time in more than two decades that the born-again vote has swung toward the Democratic candidate.”

I’m a little confused by “nonevangelical, born-again Christians.” Historically, the “born-again” experience was the sine qua non of evangelicalism and what set it apart from older denominations of Protestantism. If anyone out there understands this and can explain it to me, I would be grateful.

Anyway, what we know is that religious people, including most Christians, tend to favor Obama. The one group that does not is evangelical Christians. In most universes, the evangelical Christian vote would be considered an anomaly. However, in this universe, the evangelical movement is the “norm” and everyone else is the anomaly. Go figure.

21 thoughts on “McCain’s God Gap

  1. “…nonevangelical, born-again Christians.” How about born-agains who don’t evangelize – if there is such a word. Maybe they’re born-agains who don’t subscribe to or follow any of the malevolent divines presently holding their unholy courts.

    My only brush with born-agains was when I was asked by one if I was born-again. I replied that I was a Catholic. I was then told that I was not a Christian and that was the end of it.

    As far as that abomination last night? I chose to spend a pleasant evening instead.

  2. I wondered exactly was the current definition of “evangelical” was myself, so I did some looking. As I understand it, to be evangelical, you must 1. have high regard for the bible as the be-all, end all authority 2. stress the importance of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and 3. actively attempt to convert those who are not Christians to the Christian faith because (that’s what Baptists tell you to do).

    I was baptized but never took to the idea of active conversions. I figured, if you asked me about it, I would certainly tell you about my faith, but I wasn’t going to ram it down your throat or tell you that you were going to hell for believing in divorce. As such, I would be considered a non-evangelical born-again Christian.

    Now, of course, while I still identify myself as Christian, I can no longer identify with any organized Christian religion, as I’m rather selective about the bible (Lot being praised for offering his virgin daughters to a mob of sex-crazed men has always bothered me) and I have a high regard for other religions (higher, in some regards, than evangelical Christians).

  3. My entirely subjective opinion is that Obama is the more genuinely religious of the two candidates.

    Your opinion isn’t entirely subjective; there’s plenty of evidence in McCain’s behavior, public and private, to support it.

    The best recent example is his bizarre appearance at Sturgis (the biker vote? seriously?). Every Christian person I know– moderate, evangelical, what have you– avoids gatherings where the attendees wallow in skankitude. Fighter-pilot conventions, Paradise Island, Hooters, some Mardi Gras events, “Miss Buffalo Chip,” etc. McCain’s near-literal pandering at Sturgis is pretty solid evidence the guy is light years from anybody’s definition of “religious.”

  4. Bananaphone,

    Lot is not praised for offering his daughters. It’s an example of how thoroughly he has been corrupted by the lifestyle of Sodom. One of the mistakes in biblical interpretation fostered by fundie/evangelicals is that everything in the Bible is endorsed, which is not true. Nowhere in the OT does God endorse polygamy, yet all the patriarchs engaged in the practice. One of the best things about the Bible is how it presents its characters as fallible, messed up human beings.

    Maha, the ranks of nonevangelical born-agains are growing. Overton’s window has grabbed the evangelical movement by the throat; while the “altar moment” may have been the defining moment when you and I were young, the soul of evangelicalism is now anti-abortion, anti-public life, and even (I kid thee not) anti-estate tax. Being right (pun intended) on these issues is what makes you a member of the tribe in good standing, regardless of your conversion experience.

  5. I watched this exchange, although I still think it was a bad idea. Mainly because it gives credence to the fact that there really is a religious test for the presidency. I did think Obama sounded more sincere, but maybe that is my biased viewpoint. McCain sounded rehearsed and gave the stump speech replies, which suited that crowd perfectly fine.

  6. The best recent example is his bizarre appearance at Sturgis (the biker vote? seriously?).

    Now that you mention it- why didn’t Warren ask about that? (Rhetorical question- I think I known the answers pretty well)

  7. I thought that Rick Warren’s rate the Christian event would be the closest thing we’d see in this millenium to James and John, the sons of Zebedee jockeying for position next to Jesus. Obama did a pretty decent job of explaining who he is and what he believes,but McCain’s performance was pathetic. McCain claimed his biggest moral failing was his divorce…a divorce isn’t a moral failing…dumping a faithful but crippled wife for a beer baroness strumpet is a moral failing. Johnny didn’t seem to want to elaborate on the particulars of his moral failings. He just glossed them over under the cover of a divorce. How about..adultery, infidelity, lustfulness, whoremongering,liciviousness, wine bibing,covetedness, pride, and a whole plethora of things we wouldn’t want counted against us come judgment day, Johnny?

    I stopped watching the McCain portion of the Christian fest when McCain started rattling about crashing the Gates of Hell to find Bin Laden. I can’t handle that kind of rhetoric, it’s so Elmer Gantry. And McCain’s little story of his prison guard and their unspoken christian fellowship sounded like it belonged on the 700 club…true or not, I perceived it as bullshit and pandering.

    One obvious thing that came out of Rick Warren’s event was that the difference in intellect between the two candidates is apparent. One of them has a far superior quality of mind, but I won’t say who I think that is.

  8. Evangelicalism and the “born again” theory are two separate and distinct phenomenon. Evangelicalism refers strictly to the edict to go out and “spread the Word” while born again means receiving Christ in your heart, and thereby becoming “born again” in his church. Often there is an adult baptism involved, though not always.

    One can be born again but not be evangelical, and technically, vice versa. The two usually do go hand in hand, however.

    (Note, I am an atheist and a rationalist, though I do have a strong background in various churches, and a fervent interest in theology. One might call it an obsession. This is not as uncommon among atheists as one might think.)

  9. Joan, I assure you there are many, many Christians at Sturgis. Bikers come in all shapes and sizes. The only thing that really ties them together is a love of motorcycles. Just because a person is a Christian does not mean that they don’t enjoy the same revelries as everyone else, regardless of the event’s “skankitude”. Unless you’d like to employ the No True Scotsman logical fallacy.

  10. I saw about ten minutes of Obama and none of McCain – thought Obama did well, and was glad he was there. We need desperately need to break the GOP’s lock on God, and this is a start. Of course this is why Warren was vilified by the far right.

    The whole McCain vs Obama vis a vis religion, reminds me of Reagan vs Carter in 1980. Carter was a bona fide Southern Baptist, a Sunday school teacher, and Ronnie was a go-to-church a-few-times-a-year kind of guy. Guess who the far right evangelical crowd swooned for? This crowd’s notions of religion and God are deeply suspect, and it’s about time they were called on it.

  11. Bruce, in my comment I plainly said no Christian person I know would participate in, attend, or approve of the “Miss Buffalo Chip” competition. The same goes for Hooters, “Show us yer t*ts!” at Mardi Gras, and so on. No spiritual person of any faith I know would. They know the difference between “revelry” and public degradation.

    And I never said, or implied, there were no Christians at Sturgis.

    Of course, many religions are overtly misogynistic, but, at least, most still view extreme behaviors as beyond the pale. And others just keep them out of the public eye.

  12. Good point, BruceH.
    The members of the Church of the divine Harley I’m familar with embrace both the flag and Jesus whole heartedly. They are just as likely to be attorneys or auto mechanics.

    Although I’m a non believer, I’m currently seeking Jesus….
    in a bowl of Cheetos. Wish me luck!

  13. According to Christine Wicker (The Fall of the Evangelical Nation), Barna defines a born-again as someone who believes:

    1) They will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus as their savior.

    2) They have made a personal commitment to Jesus that is still important to them.

    Evangelicals also believe the following:

    1) Their commitment to Jesus in very important in their life today.

    2) They have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians.

    3) Satan exists.

    4) Eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works.

    5) Jesus lived a sinless life on earth.

    6) The Bible is accurate in all that it teaches (biblical ‘literalism’).

    7) God is an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today.

  14. I watched the whole discussion. It was interesting to see the 2 candidates field exactly the same questions w/out knowing how the other had responded.My impressions: Pastor Warren was evenhanded in the questions he selected & the delivery of those questions

    This was not Obama’s crowd & he knew it going in, but he’s not going to cede the field of spiritual voters to the Republicans. Obama got more than polite applause when he quoted scripture to support his political philosophy. “Whatever you do for the least of mt brothers & sisters, you do for ME.” He was honest about who is ‘rich’, about taxes, about sacrifice.

    McCain was less spiritual more wooden . ‘Drill here ; drill now” He would not define ‘rich’, recited the standard axiom, ‘lower taxes, lower taxes’. McCain looks like he is mentally stuck in a POW experience; he brought up at least 2 POW stories. He pushed a very hawkish stance on Iraq; Gen Patreus is, getting OBL. It played well to the crowd there, but did it play nationally?

  15. Joanr16, It isn’t just Christians..any man with a modicum of decency and self respect wouldn’t hold his wife up to the crowd like a cheap piece of meat to be drooled over by a bunch of horny bikers. McCain seems to have some problems respecting his wife’s virtue, at least according to some of the choice names he’s publicly bestowed upon her. Whether or not McCain is in good standing with Christ we don’t know, but from all outward appearances his words and his behavours certainly don’t edify the body of Christ.

    The question to ask is: Would you invite Jesus to come along with you to view the Miss Buffalo Chip contest? Or the pickle sucking event? I’m sure Jesus would get a big kick out of the fake orgasm competition.. a wholesome family activity.

  16. Mike the Mad, “4) Eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works” always gets my panties in a bunch. Seems to me that most evangelicals I know believe that grace comes from firm belief, so #4 implies that they can live their lives as total shits and still go to heaven; God only cares that you think higly of him. That strikes me as too easy.

  17. Swami, I agree with you completely. And, uh, thanks for those mental images. Apparently Sturgis is worse than I ever imagined.

    Since I’m not a Christian, I don’t know, either, how to define one. I only know what my Christian friends and relations consider to be wrong. Also what I, having what I like to think is essential decency and self-respect, consider not just wrong but outrageous.

    If I take a step back, I see the real outrage as the two presidential contenders having to suck up to religionists, in violation of Article VI of the Constitution.

  18. I think the campaign sent McCain to Sturgis because of a loose idea that bikers have an affection for and relationship to POWs and MIAs dating back to the Vietnam war and they would welcome him with open arms. There are probably many veterans in the biker ranks. I don’t believe though that he talked about veterans’ issues at Sturgis. He and the campaign might not have realized just what Sturgis is — a weeklong (?) party which gets rowdy quite fast. (I’m not giving McCain a pass here; it was up to the campaign to research the people who go to Sturgis and what happens there. And I know there are all kinds of bikers.)

    I also think Saturday’s event (which I didn’t watch) was over the line in mixing church and state. I’m not pleased that Obama took part in it.

  19. Dave (#17),

    I agree with you; being Jewish, the idea that one is saved by grace and work is not what we do (then again, the notion that one is concerned with salvation also is odd). I don’t care much for the ecclesiastical get-out-of-jail-free card either. But those are Barna’s criteria.

  20. Seems to me that most evangelicals I know believe that grace comes from firm belief, so #4 implies that they can live their lives as total shits and still go to heaven;

    Hence its appeal to people who seek a religion that demands nothing from them except conformity. They belong to the tribe, therefore by definition they are morally superior and everything they do is righteous.

    6) The Bible is accurate in all that it teaches (biblical ‘literalism’).

    7) God is an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today.

    You left out:
    (8) An obsession with the gentials of others

    (9) A love of judgementalism, parochialism and punishment

    (10) Support for war, torture and jingoism (“Jesus is an American Republican”)

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