January 2009 Church & State | Featured

Religious Right organizations attacked Barack Obama without stop during the campaign and haven’t let up since Nov. 4 – but not all evangelicals are hostile to the new president. Some evangelical leaders, in fact, met with Obama during the campaign and now hope for influence in the new administration.

Old-style Religious Right leaders have already signaled that they intend to assume a confrontational stance. In a recent interview with the Baptist Press, Religious Right attorney Mat Staver blasted Obama with florid rhetoric, branding him a “threat.”

“I would consider him to be the biggest threat to religious liberty we’ve ever had because he will push the homosexual agenda,” said Staver, who runs a legal group affiliated with the late Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. “I think churches and pastors will be very negatively affected by Obama’s policies.”

Within days of Obama’s victory, the Family Research Council (FRC) issued a fund-raising letter vowing to fight him. The FRC has kept up a steady stream of anti-Obama appeals since.

In one recent letter, FRC President Tony Perkins begged supporters to raise more than $1 million to fight Obama court nominees that don’t even exist yet.

Blasting the “extremist views of the Obama White House,” Perkins asked, “Will newly elected President Barack Obama be able to win approval for nominees to the Supreme Court who are hostile to your faith, family and freedoms? Or will he meet vigorous opposition, forcing him to settle for moderate justices whose rulings will respect faith, family and freedom?”

Obama isn’t likely to spend much time trying to win over the Religious Right. But a more moderate faction of evangelicals may have more influence. This group is still coalescing; its leaders are not well known, and, unlike the Religious Right, it lacks well funded national organizations – but its influence is being felt.

Dr. Joel Hunter, an evangelical pastor who gave an invocation at the Democratic convention, said he expects this faction to have a place at the table during the Obama administration.

“I think we’re going to be invited into many conversations,” remarked Hunter, pastor of central Florida’s Northland Church. “He is a consensus-oriented type of leader. We need to be able to respond to those invitations, to those given. Part of our role is to speak truth to power. That certainly is part of our role. The most effective way of doing that is not to be so narrow and combative. It’s to be part of the conversation. It’s not to back down on any moral convictions that we have.”

Evangelical leader Jim Wallis is also expected to exert influence – and maybe some pressure – in the new administration. Wallis was an early supporter of President George W. Bush’s “faith-based” initiative but later soured on the way Bush enacted it.

Wallis, who says he has known Obama for about a decade, still supports the faith-based concept and believes Obama has a chance to do it better. Wallis supports giving religious groups the right to discriminate in hiring and may press Obama in this area.

“Barack Obama will not want to do anything to endanger charitable choice,” Wallis told the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy in July. “This is him, this is who he is.”

Obama made attempts to reach out to conservative evangelicals during the campaign. He agreed to take part in a forum at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in California, during which he and U.S. Sen. John McCain were quizzed on how they relate their faith to public policy.

In June, Obama hosted a private meeting for several religious conservative leaders, among them Franklin Graham and Stephen Strang, publisher of Charisma, a widely circulated Pentecostal magazine. The event was not open to the press, but reports later surfaced that Graham questioned Obama about his salvation and Obama’s father’s connection to Islam.

The Obama outreach efforts weren’t terribly successful. Exit polls showed the vast majority of white evangelicals backing John McCain.