It will take years to fully grasp the tsunami that swept Barrack Obama into the presidency. "It's the first time" or "not since" or "historic" have punctuated most coverage of it -- even President Bush called it "awesome." It reconfigured electoral politics and created "never before seen" voting blocs. One new and powerful wave of support for Obama came from the most surprising of groups: evangelicals.
Incredible as it sounds, exit polls show that the number of white evangelicals (ages 18-44), the base of the Republican party, supported Obama in double the numbers that came out for John Kerry in 2004. (Even Catholics were more enthusiastic about protestant Obama than they were for Catholic Kerry -- Obama won the majority, 54%, of Catholic voters; Kerry got 47%.) Nationally, 25% of white evangelicals voted for Obama. In certain key states, the numbers were higher. He saw a 14% increase in support from white evangelicals in crucial states like Colorado, 8% in Indiana, 8% in North Carolina and 4% in Ohio. Most important, he won 32% of young evangelicals (doubling the 16% for McCain).
The surge of evangelical support for Obama reflects stunning changes among voters who have traditionally voted for the most right-wing of Republicans. Democratic strategists should hear this message loud and clear: many morality voters have party-hopped. Are these culture warriors laying down their swords? The 2008 election may mark the moment religious voters put reason above rhetoric. The birth of the Obamagelical.
Clearly Obama's inclusive approach resonated with many evangelical voters--but to only credit the candidate is to miss the bigger story. According to a poll taken by Beliefnet.com, Obamagelicals believe the Democratic party platform holds the greatest potential for progress on the most intransigent issues. Take, for example, abortion. Of evangelicals who voted for Obama only 8% believed that restricting abortion would lead to reductions in the abortion rate (61% of evangelicals for McCain did). A whopping 86% of Obamagelicals believe that instead "the best way to reduce abortion is by preventing unintended pregnancy (through education and birth control), or providing financial assistance to pregnant mothers." This is in direct opposition to the "pro-life" agenda, which seeks to ban many forms of contraception along with abortion.
Obamagelicals have re-priortized what they consider the critical issues our nation must address. For McCain's evangelical supporters, abortion is their top issue; 65% select it as one of the most important issues of the election. Only 10% of Obamagelicals think this. Most list, in order of importance, the economy, Iraq war, reducing poverty, character of the candidate, the environment, cleaning up government, access to healthcare as the more critical issues facing our country. For McCain's evangelical voters abortion is the number one issue facing our country, and "reducing poverty" weighs in at #13 in importance. That 75% of women having abortion list financial reasons as the basis of their decision doesn't click for McCain's evangelicals. For Obamagelicals it apparently does.
As the Washington Post reported,
It could be we're at a tipping point in this culture," said R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. "Ignoring the obvious will not help."
President-elect Barack Obama and other Democrats have promised to work to make abortion rare, so long as it remains legal. "Maybe it's time to take them up on the offer" instead of "bashing our heads over and over again against the same wall," writes Paul Strand, a blogger for the Christian Broadcasting Network.
The Rev. Joel Hunter, an influential megachurch pastor in Florida, sees a new willingness among pro-life activists to cooperate with pro-choice forces in search of a middle ground. He traces that openness in part to the flourishing of crisis pregnancy centers. As volunteers meet women struggling with unplanned pregnancies, they begin to view abortion less as an absolute evil and more as a practical challenge: How do we get this single mother a job, or help that college student with child care so she doesn't feel as though abortion is her only option?"
No less than a third of white evangelicals under 30 favored Obama. These young evangelicals come to long intransigent issues like abortion with a fresh, results-oriented approach, and for the Republican party and the pro-life movement as a whole, this is bad news. Prevention of unwanted pregnancy was important enough to make it into the Democratic party platform this year (and previous ones). That platform states:
The Democratic Party also strongly supports access to affordable family planning services and comprehensive age-appropriate sex education which empower people to make informed choices and live healthy lives. We also recognize that such health care and education help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and thereby also reduce the need for abortions.
The Republican platform is silent on the subject pregnancy prevention. It has no strategy to prevent unintended pregnancy, only to ban abortion. There is not one "pro-life" organization in the United States that supports contraception, though it's the only proven way to reduce the need for abortion.
Now young evangelicals appear to be turning away from the monolithic fights of their elders. They support prevention because it delivers the results they seek. Bill Clinton, the nation's first pro-choice president, inherited high abortion rates from the previous two "pro-life" Presidents, Reagan and Bush (Sr.). Clinton presided over the most dramatic decline in abortion rates in the recorded history of our country. He backed prevention and financial support for the most at risk; the pro-choice approach. Banning abortion, the "pro-life" movement's approach, has little effect on its prevalence, study after study shows. The countries with the highest abortion rates in the world are those that have already adopted our Republican party's platform and banned abortion. This includes most of Latin America where abortion rates are equal to the US and in several countries twice as high.
Conversely, the strategy Obama promises to implement is what has proven to work in the countries where abortion is most rare. These countries, like the Netherlands, Belgium, Finland, have adopted the strongest pro-choice policies--abortion is legal, often free, contraception is widely available and abstinence-only education exists only as an oxymoron.
Obamagelicals have moved beyond the righteous rhetoric and political hyperbole to focus a wider array of issues that impact rates of abortion, like poverty, education and prevention. They may be the common ground movement pro-choice people have long been praying for.
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