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Documentary Explores Evangelicals for Obama and Dissatisfaction with Republican Party

The UK’s Channel 4 has just broadcast a documentary about American evangelical dissatisfaction with the Republican Party and increasing support for the Democrats. Entitled (rather uninspiredly) God Bless America, the programme was made by Calvin Skaggs, who was responsible for With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America a few years ago.

Most of the programme dealt with evangelicals who have become attracted to the Democrats: the party now talks about “values”, and in Obama had a candidate happy to talk about faith and God and able to evoke the Civil Rights era. However, there are also other factors: Shaun Casey of Wesley Theological Seminary made the interesting suggestion that the thousands of evangelicals who headed to New Orleans to help out in the wake of Hurricane Katrina returned home “transformed and angry” at the failure of the government to assist. And more generally, as former Bush sppechwriter Michael Gerson concedes, the Religious Right is perceived as “too narrow and too negative” for younger evangelicals who are interested in a greater range of issues than abortion and homosexuality – the young evangelicals interviewed in the programme used terms like “world citizen” to identify themselves, and they are keen to tackle poverty and other ills; in particular, there is concern for the environment.  Mega-church pastor Joel Hunter is worried about climate change, and his careful explanation of what’s at stake is contrasted (without belabouring the point) with a lame sneer from Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council that “you talk about the weather when you have nothing to say”. Members of Hunter’s church admit that they used to see environmentalism as a preserve of hippy “tree-huggers”, and that they should have engaged with the issues before now.

We are also introduced to Obama’s evangelical activists and strategists (filmed in the run-up to the election), such as Mara Vanderslice and Burns Strider, and their “Matthew 25 Network” campaigning work – one advert promoted by the Network earned a bitter rebuttal from James Dobson. Meanwhile, the campaign’s Director of Religious Affairs, Joshua DuBois, held “Faith Forums” to drum up support. Evangelical supporters of Obama say they support him over McCain because they have “done the math”, but at the same time are keen to stress the need to keep civil and to avoid being “worked up” to feel hate or bitterness.

At the same time, evangelicals have become less enamoured with the Republican Party. Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals complains that evangelicals had been taken advantage of by the Bush administration and treated like a “cheap date”, while Tony Perkins despairs at John McCain’s insistence that his faith is personal and private, and his tendency to talk about topics such as defence rather than values issues. Marlys Pompa, McCain’s Outreach Co-ordinator for evangelicals, is forced to trawl through McCain’s Faith of My Fathers for morsels of spirituality, and a meeting with officials from Liberty University is polite but unenthused. Only Sarah Palin invigorates the campaign, but on insofar as to bring the base back on board. At the end of the programme, Perkins seems unsure about the ways in which the Religious Right is to develop, although he’s confident that it will “always be there”.

One Response

  1. I watched it, and was personally stunned that Channel 4 had made a good religious documentary without picking on wackos and weirdos. No voicover or strange camerawork, the whole narrative was given by the interviewees, which worked really well.

    The interesting thing was how little had changed – conservative evangelicals voted 78% for Bush in 2004, 73% for Palin, sorry McCain, in 2008. It was portrayed as a bit of a sea-change, but seems to be just a few ripples at the moment.

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