Having empowered the failed and deadly presidency of George W. Bush evangelicals should be in the market for redemption. So I'll make a prediction: if Senator Obama is the Democratic Party candidate, the 2008 election will provide a watershed moment for the evangelical community, perhaps even a second chance.
According to the polling data from the last 30 years evangelicals have been largely responsible for bringing us the Republican dominance of Congress and the White House. I note this with deep regret because -- along with my late evangelical leader father Francis Schaeffer -- I contributed to the founding the Religious Right. (This was before I left the evangelical movement in the mid 1980s and got honest work as a novelist.)
Leaders of the Religious Right such as Dr. Dobson, have had an outsized influence in keeping Republicans in power. And now that the chickens have come home to roost -- in a failed a failing war, a national war debt that is going to possibly sink the US economy and worldwide Bush-inspired hatred of our country -- evangelicals have to ask themselves if they are up for another round of self-immolation.
How will evangelicals respond to Obama when it comes to race, lies and hate? In 2000 they went along with the Bush people even after the Bush team spread lies about Senator McCain (race-tinged lies about his having an "illegitimate" black child who was actually adopted). Those lies were effective. They helped put Bush in the White House. They also proved that racism still works within the Republican/evangelical base.
Confronted by a racially tinged campaign against Obama, will evangelicals pass by on the other side of the road -- again -- and pretend not to notice as Obama is smeared? Or will they stand up this time?
I don't intend to suggest that evangelicals have to vote for Obama or otherwise they are complicit with racists. I know many evangelicals who admire Obama, some of whom will be voting for him, others not. What I am saying is that evangelicals should be fair and true to a higher call than mere political expediency.
Obama has opened an unusually honest national conversation on race but also, by default--because he suffered from smear-by-association re Reverend Wright -- a conversation on the place of religion in politics. This is uncomfortably familiar territory to evangelicals. They have had their own extremists for which their community of faith has sometimes been blamed. For instance, many evangelicals disagreed with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson when -- in their version of "God damn America!" -- they claimed that 9/11 was an act of God punishing America for the sins of homosexuality, feminism, liberalism and abortion. Some people called all evangelicals "intolerant" because of the Falwell/Robertson remarks.
The Obama candidacy is smoking out the right wing bigots, cretins, thugs and racists that too many evangelicals have been cozying up to in order to keep Republicans in power at any cost. I have a little personal and very minor unscientific evidence, that this is still happening.
Ever since I've been writing about my support for Obama and ever since my memoire was published -- critiquing the evangelical right, as well as my and my father's role in the Religious Right -- I've received my share of hate email. The point here isn't the hate mail. Big deal. No harm done. The point is the interesting timing.
The hate mail always "coincidentally" shows up moments after an evangelical and/or right wing publication or website just happens to publish a scathing attack on my Obama support and/or my memoir. Here are just a few recent little screeds mixing weirdly cloying feigned piety and outright thuggish stupidity:
Congrats on your conversion to the faggot loving...You choose to look away for popularity among easy prey. Mindless non-thinking faggot loving, abortion loving, America hating anarchists. Now you are one with them.
[F]urthermore [in] your obvious desire to please Barbara Streisand, Rob Reiner, Barbara Boxer, The NYT and the rest of the ad nauseum hate America bunch... You have become a useful idiot for darkness. But I am sorry this has happened to you and I will pray for you and your family who must be terribly confused and conflicted.
I have learned in 30 years that no child of God gets out of here without the proper discipline... If Os Guinness had it right and you fit the profile of a spoiled and undisciplined brat, yours will come. (The writer is referencing one of my many evangelical critics who wrote a piece that originally appeared in a Christianity Today book review and was then quoted widely and approvingly on several right wing hate sites).
Well, massah, you got the wrong whitey with me.
My little taste of hate mail is a minor footnote that points to the spirit behind -- and the flavor of -- the very real hate and much more serious, smear campaign against Obama. Consider Pat Buchanan's disgusting post on his website. This was his "answer" to Obama's elegant March 18 speech on race. Buchanan's best shot? Quote statistics about black on white crime and especially how many white women are raped by black men. Buchanan writes:
Is Barack Obama aware that while white criminals choose black victims 3 percent of the time, black criminals choose white victims 45 percent of the time? Is Barack aware that black-on-white rapes are 100 times more common than the reverse... (3/ 21/08 "A Brief for Whitey")
I'm concerned for my evangelical friends. The American right has become even more ugly in response to the Obama presidential run than they were when they tried to derail the first McCain bid for the presidency. This time race is involved. If the evangelicals are perceived to go along with the smearing of Obama their reputation will live in infamy for generations.
The lies are multiplying. For instance, borrowing "facts" from a right wing hate site, Fox commentator William Kristol (the man who worked so hard to encourage the Iraq war) goofed in his NY Times column (3/17/08) by saying Obama had lied about not attending the most controversial Reverend Wright church service. But Obama had told the truth, he hadn't been there. The Times forced Kristol make a retraction.
There have been a slew of similar "Fox facts" going around. On 1/19/08 Fox News said that Obama attended a "madrassa." Host Doocy noted that madrassas are "financed by Saudis" and "teach this Wahhabism which pretty much hates us," then said, "The big question is: was that on the curriculum back then?" A caller to the show questioned if that meant that "maybe Obama doesn't consider terrorists the enemy." Fox anchor Brian Kilmeade responded, "Well, we'll see about that." Hannity & Colmes spent the 3/21/08 show attacking Obama. Hannity was trying to make Obama out to be a racist. McCain spokesman Jack Kemp (on the show) wound up defending Obama. The right wing radio shows are literally clogged with anti-Obama name calling, hysteria, and outright lies.
The right will destroy the reputation of anyone and any group associated with them. Is this what evangelicals want to be identified with? Do they really buy into the FOX/Buchanan/Kristol/Limbaugh-type lies that can be summed up as: Obama hates America! Michelle Obama hates America! Obama's pastor hates all white people! If Obama wins, the terrorists win! Al Qaeda loves Obama! Obama is a Muslim! Okay, he's not a Muslim, he's a Christian, but the wrong kind! His pastor hates America! Blacks rape more white women!
A few evangelicals (unlike the "progressive" Clintons!) have distanced themselves from the hate mongers. For instance, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Richard Cizik and I were on a PRI radio show the other day and he defended Obama. Mike Huckabee did the same on MSNBC, and went out of his way to also defend Obama's pastor. Recently evangelical Jack Kemp, a Republican leader and McCain backer, also defended Obama.
On PBS's Religion & Ethics Newsweekly Cizik warned that evangelicals, like other Americans, let their partisan feelings take precedence over their faith and better selves. He said:
One is inclined, I think, to put your politics in front of your faith and let that dictate your response rather than see in [Obama's] speech [on race] what we all need to see, which is that America has to come together... And because we don't worship together, we don't know this language of Jeremiah Wright. And yet, we have a history ourselves as evangelicals of preaching against the government. Saying things that Wright has said in another era, we've said before.
Cizik is a representative of a new and better direction in the evangelical movement, someone who has run afoul of the right wing within the evangelical establishment in the person of Dr. Dobson who tried to get him fired because of Cizik speaking out about global warming. Dobson saw this as disloyal to Bush and as a distraction from the far right's "core issues." But Dobson failed in his politicized power play and in that failure I see hope for the future for the evangelical movement.
It's time for all Americans -- including evangelicals -- to actually listen to Obama and not just to his detractors and/or talking head gatekeepers and/or sound bites of his pastor's remarks! A good place to start is a magnificent talk Obama gave in 2006 on his Christian faith and how he views the interaction of faith and politics. Obama said:
"Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason... But a sense of proportion should also guide those who police the boundaries between church and state. "
No matter who individual evangelicals vote for all evangelicals would be well advised to begin to salvage what little remains of their tattered post-Bush political credibility. The least evangelicals can do is denounce the hate mongers and liars and demand that Obama is given the courtesy of a fair shake.
Frank Schaeffer is a writer and author of "CRAZY FOR GOD-How I Grew Up As One Of The Elect, Helped Found The Religious Right, And Lived To Take All (Or Almost All) Of It Back