How many pieces have we read in recent months about how evangelical Christians are falling over themselves in a mad rush to support presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama? Every discovery that evangelicals care about more than just the sanctity of human life and traditional marriage is met with hopeful accounts about how the Republican Party is losing these voters to the Democratic Party. Now, it may be true that presumptive Republican nominee John McCain has failed to get many folks, including evangelicals, excited about him. But given all the coverage to the contrary, I was somewhat surprised to see the results of a new Pew study that indicates that Obama is getting slightly fewer -- that's right -- fewer white evangelical supporters than John Kerry was at the same time four years ago.
Does that match with the media coverage we've been reading?
Take this story from Wednesday's Waco Tribune-Herald. Reporter Terri Jo Ryan begins her piece this way:
For more than 20 years, evangelical Christians have been viewed as a monolithic voting block, and that rock belonged to the Republican Party.
But the 2008 election has seen more younger and politically independent evangelicals telling pollsters they back Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama
Have they? She cites no evidence -- other than anecdotal -- that evangelicals are, in fact, backing Obama. The story is long and does quote a professor throwing water on the supposed inroads with evangelicals. But if you're going to claim that polls show increased evangelical support -- provide the data. That Pew poll, released later this week, doesn't support Ryan's lede.
Twenty-six percent of white evangelicals supported Kerry at this time in 2004. This year, 25 percent of white evangelicals support Obama. Some migration!
But the media seem to have decided that the story of this campaign will be the movement of white evangelicals from the Republican Party to the Democratic. And they'll probably just beat that horse until it happens.
Take, for instance, the headline and subhead to this story in U.S. News & World Report by Liz Halloran:
Obama Campaign Is Making Progress With Evangelical Voters McCain leads with the group but the Democrat is doing all the right things
Doing all the right things? Gah! Way to editorialize there, USN&WR! Anyway, if you read the story, the only "progress" is anecdotally supplied by Obama operatives. Here's the breathless beginning:
Randy Brinson says he "almost fell out of my chair" when he heard that expected Democratic nominee Barack Obama had chosen Zanesville, Ohio, as the setting for a recent speech in which he embraced the concept of using faith-based groups to help carry out government social service efforts.
It wasn't that Zanesville struck Brinson as an odd locale. Quite the opposite. It was that Obama had clearly figured out something that Brinson already knew.
"Zanesville is Ground Zero for conservative evangelicals in Ohio," says Brinson, who, as founder of the voter registration organization "Redeem the Vote," knows a thing or two about where to find conservative Christians.
Actually, that U.S. News & World Report story was so fluffy that it reminded me of this week's epic story on Obama coverage from The Onion, headlined "'Time' Publishes Definitive Obama Puff Piece:"
Time managing editor Rich Stengel said he was proud of the Obama puff piece, and that he hoped it would help to redefine the boundaries of journalistic drivel.
"When the American people cast their vote this November, this is the piece of fluff they're going to remember," Stengel said. "Not the ones by Newsweek, Harper's, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Economist, Nightline, The Wall Street Journal, or even that story about lessons Obama learned from his first-grade teacher we ran a month ago."
Many folks may have difficulty making fun of Obama but it's pretty easy to mock the mainstream coverage of him thus far.
There were two Associated Press stories and a Los Angeles Times blog post that were better than those mentioned above. AP's Mike Glover had an accurate angle with his look at how evangelicals aren't terribly revved up about McCain. It's just a well reported, interesting and straightforward look at the obstacles McCain has to overcome to get people more excited. Because there's little indication these evangelicals are going to Obama, there isn't much discussion of that aspect:
In the ongoing AP-Yahoo News Poll, only 10 percent of white evangelical Christians say they are excited by this election, compared with 20 percent of Americans overall. A third of these evangelicals said they were interested in the election, but half said they were frustrated by it.
Nevertheless, they support McCain over Obama by 62 percent to 18 percent. Although the AP-Yahoo News Poll is of all adults, not the smaller, more energized group of likely voters, McCain's figures lag behind Bush's showing among white evangelical Christian voters in the 2004 election, when exit polls indicated 78 percent supported him.
Here's the beginning of that Los Angeles Times blog post:
Democrats like to say that, this year, they finally will dig into the Republicans' traditional advantage among evangelical voters. After all, social conservatives are skeptical of John McCain, and Barack Obama seems so comfortable talking about his faith (at least when his former pastor isn't involved).
But a new analysis from the nonpartisan Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, finds that Obama is doing just as badly among white evangelical voters as his party's 2004 nominee was at this point.
Again, it makes sense that Democrats are going to push the story that they are making great inroads into the evangelical community. But it's the job of the media to check whether that version of events is true.
AP's Eric Gorski also had an interesting story about the great pains being made by Democrats to welcome religious voters. It begins with a great anecdote about how atheists are asking to take part in an interfaith service that will open the national convention in Denver next month.
The article details the efforts Obama has made to incorporate faith themes and outreach into his campaign, how those efforts complicate outreach to nonbelievers. Much of the piece profiles Leah Daughtry, an experienced political hand in charge of planning the Democratic National Convention who is also an ordained Pentecostal minister:
Leah Daughtry has married faith and politics, holding positions in the Clinton-era Labor Department, working on the 1992 Democratic National Convention and heading her party's outreach to faith groups, Faith In Action. And she continues to lead her own House of the Lord Church of 20 or 30 people in Washington, D.C.
Daughtry considers it all "ministry - a way to give of yourself.'' Several of her party's positions, though, put her at odds with most evangelical Christians. That includes her support for abortion rights.
"Theologically, we believe that in the greatest decision of our entire lives - whether to follow God or not - God allows us to choose,'' she said. "If God is big enough to allow that choice, then who are we to dictate choices to other people? Your choices have consequences, but you should be allowed to make those choices.''
Gorski quotes Democratic platform committee member and evangelical author Tony Campolo as saying that party language pointing toward "abortion reduction" is necessary to woo other evangelicals. And he included the Pew survey results showing that no more white evangelicals support Obama now than they did Kerry at this point in 2004.
It's a start.