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McCain and Obama Seek to Reach Out to Evangelical Voters

August 18, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama addressed evangelical Christians at pastor Rick Warren's Saddleback church this weekend. Experts examine how the evangelical movement has changed since the last election and how the candidates are reaching out to the group.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, the presidential candidates make their pitch to Evangelicals. NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman begins with some background.

KWAME HOLMAN: Barack Obama and John McCain briefly shared a stage Saturday, for the first time since becoming their parties’ presumptive nominees, at the California mega-church of Revered Rick Warren.

Warren asked both many of the same questions about religious faith during separate appearances over two hours. The event underscored the candidates’ desire to capture the votes of white Evangelical Christians. In 2004, nearly 4 of 5 such voters went for George W. Bush.

Warren’s questions touched a range of issues important to Evangelicals, including the courts, global poverty, and abortion.

Obama was interviewed first.

RICK WARREN, Founder, Saddleback Church: Forty million abortions. At what point does a baby get human rights, in your view?

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: Well, you know, I think that whether you’re looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade.

One thing that I’m absolutely convinced of is that there is a moral and ethical element to this issue. And so I think anybody who tries to deny the moral difficulties and gravity of the abortion issue, I think, is not paying attention.

RICK WARREN: At what point is a baby entitled to human rights?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: At the moment of conception.

I have a 25-year pro-life record in the Congress, in the Senate. And as president of the United States, I will be a pro-life president. And this presidency will have pro-life policies.

KWAME HOLMAN: Warren turned to social justice, asking the candidates if they would support a plan to care for the millions of orphans in the world.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I think it’s a great idea. I think it’s something that we should sit down and figure out, working between nongovernmental organizations, international institutions, the U.S. government, try to figure out, what can we do?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Well, I think we have to make adoption a lot easier in this country. That’s why so many people go to other countries to get — to be able to adopt children.

Seventeen years ago, Cindy was in Dhaka, Bangladesh. She went to Mother Teresa’s orphanage. The nuns brought her two little babies who were not going to live.

Cindy came home. I met her at the airplane. She showed me this five-week-old baby and said, “Meet your new daughter.” She’s 17, and our life is blessed. And that’s what adoption is all about.

KWAME HOLMAN: And Warren asked both candidates to reflect on their greatest moral failure.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I had a difficult youth. My father wasn’t in the house. I’ve written about this. You know, there were times where I experimented with drugs and I drank in my teenage years.

And what I trace this to is a certain selfishness on my part. I was so obsessed with me and, you know, the reasons that I might be dissatisfied that I couldn’t focus on other people. And, you know, I think the process for me of growing up was to recognize that it’s not about me.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: My greatest moral failing — and I have been a very imperfect person — is the failure of my first marriage. It’s my greatest moral failure.

KWAME HOLMAN: It’s likely both candidates will continue to address faith issues. Evangelical white Protestants comprise nearly 20 percent of the electorate.

Who are Evangelical voters?

Steven Waldman
Electorally, politically, we're talking about a quarter of the electorate describes itself as Evangelical or born-again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We get three perspectives on the Evangelical vote. They come from the Rev. Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Northland Church near Orlando, Florida. He will give a benediction during the Democratic National Convention in Denver next week.

Richard Land, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.

And Steven Waldman covers Evangelicals as founder and editor-in-chief of Beliefnet, an independent, multi-faith spiritual Web site.

Gentlemen, thank you, all three.

And, Steven Waldman, I'm going to begin with you. We know that the Evangelical vote is important. But, first of all, who are we talking about when we talk about white Evangelicals? Who are they?

STEVEN WALDMAN, Beliefnet: Well, we're talking about people who put the Bible at the center of their life, who feel that Jesus Christ died for their sins. Those are the theological points that tend to describe Evangelicals, though, I should say, there's a lot of debate even within the Evangelical community over what that word means.

Electorally, politically, we're talking about a quarter of the electorate describes itself as Evangelical or born-again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dr. Land, Richard Land, what would you add to that?

RICHARD LAND, Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission: Well, I think Steven has gotten us off to a good start. Theologically, Evangelicals are people who believe in the authority of scripture.

They believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God; he lived a sinless life; he died on the cross for their sins; and he was literally resurrected on Easter Sunday. He's ascended to the right hand of the father, and he's coming back to culminate history. And salvation involves faith in him and his sacrifice.

And Evangelical means that we have an obligation and a responsibility to share our faith, to fulfill the great commission, to go into all the world and to share our faith with as many people as we possibly can.

A widening agenda

Rev. Joel Hunter
Northland Church
There was more of a focus on abortion, on marriage between one man and one woman [...] But now [...] there's just as much attention being given to life after you're born and the compassion issues, poverty, AIDS, climate change.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rev. Hunter, there's been a lot of discussion about a new guard, if you will, in the Evangelical movement. Is there such a thing as a new guard? And if there is, what is that all about?

REV. JOEL HUNTER, Northland Church: Well, I'm not sure about the "new guard." There's an expansion. There's a definite widening of the priority agenda items, and they would be called more completely pro-life.

There was more of a focus on abortion, on marriage between one man and one woman. There was a reaction, taking prayer out of schools and so on and so forth.

But now -- and this is especially true with younger evangelicals -- there's just as much attention being given to life after you're born and the compassion issues, poverty, AIDS, climate change, taking care of God's environment, and so on and so forth. Those are also important.

So, as Christians, we are caring for God's environment, we're caring for the poor, we're caring about healing ministries. Now, that's always been a part of who we were, but, in process of voting and evaluating who we're going to vote for, those have recently become more important.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me turn to you, Steven Waldman. Are we saying this is a more moderate group that has grown up out of the Evangelical movement?

STEVEN WALDMAN: Yes. About 40 percent of white Evangelicals describe themselves as moderate or liberal. Now, it turns out that young Evangelicals are just as anti-abortion as their parents, but they tend to be more to the left on gay rights. And more importantly, they've expanded the agenda to include the issues that Rev. Hunter is talking about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let's get right to the subject on the minds of so many looking at this election.

Dr. Land, President Bush we mentioned before won something like 80 percent of the Evangelical vote in the last election. What are Barack Obama's prospects this year?

RICHARD LAND: Well, so far -- first of all, I agree that there's been an expansion of agenda, especially among younger evangelicals, but the key here is there's been an expansion, not an exchange or replacement of agendas.

And Barack Obama is having trouble, because he is probably the most radically pro-choice candidate ever picked by a major party.

Bush got 78 percent of white Evangelical votes. In the Time poll, McCain gets 70 percent and Obama gets 19 percent. Kerry got 22 percent. And in the Pew poll, McCain gets 65 percent and Obama gets 21 percent. So Obama is not doing as well as John Kerry right now, which even surprises me a little.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you explain that, Rev. Hunter?

REV. JOEL HUNTER: He hasn't come out strongly enough to support a woman's right to choose life. That is now in the Democratic platform. It's new. And so he will only do as well with Evangelicals -- or he will do proportionately well with Evangelicals as he addresses the prospect of reducing the number of abortions.

The very simple way to approach this is to back the effort of Democrats to pass legislation that would help young women who want to carry their babies to term to do exactly that. And there are several other ways that we can do that.

And so there is legislation waiting in the wings. If there is some sort of emphasis to say, "I not only will protect the right of women to choose abortion, we will now expand this attention and this support to women who want to choose life," then he probably can get a larger portion, although it will still be fractional, of the Evangelical vote.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Steven Waldman, are we talking here about a battle, if you will, over the moderate piece of the Evangelical movement?

STEVEN WALDMAN: Yes. And what you're trying to do -- what Obama is trying to do is not to convince them that he's pro-life. That's not going to work.

What he's trying to do is appeal to Evangelicals, this group of Evangelicals, who likes Obama on just about everything else. They like him on the Iraq war, on the economy and health, but then they get to abortion. And they're really concerned that Obama is, as Rev. Land said, an extremist.

So what Obama has tried to do is say, well, I'm pro-choice, but I want to reduce the number of abortions. But, frankly, his message on that has been very inconsistent and muddy. And he's going against a long history of there being basically two choices, being pro-choice and pro-life.

He's trying to say he's something different, which is someone who's pro-choice on the legal issues but wants to discourage abortion. If he's going to really try to make that argument, he's going to have to be much more forceful and repetitive about it.

McCain's challenges

Richard Land
Southern Baptist Convention
The Time magazine poll said that 70 percent of Evangelicals currently were planning on voting for McCain, but only 15 percent were enthusiastic about doing so.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dr. Land, what about John McCain? I mean, are you suggesting that for him this is a natural group? We had heard earlier in the campaign that he was having a very difficult time appealing to Evangelical voters.

RICHARD LAND: Well, the Time magazine poll said that 70 percent of Evangelicals currently were planning on voting for McCain, but only 15 percent were enthusiastic about doing so. Now, I think that number probably went up after the Saddleback civil forum on Saturday.

And I must say, genetically, I'm an optimist. But even I could never have dreamed at the end of the 2004 campaign that, in 2008, the two presidential candidates, their only common appearance on a platform prior to their conventions would be at a Southern Baptist Church with a fourth-generation Southern Baptist preacher asking the questions for two hours.

Even I'm not that optimistic. So much for the decline in Evangelical influence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rev. Hunter, to you on that point, and then again on John McCain, has this become a more natural base for him?

REV. JOEL HUNTER: He's working at it. He has not reached out with the same fervor, quite frankly, that Senator Obama has reached out to Evangelicals. And it may be because the Republican Party just believes that the Evangelical base is most naturally going to stick with them. But he hasn't exercised the same kind of energy in including us in conversations.

Now, having said that, I agree with Richard that he did a tremendous job Saturday night, delivered several applause lines. And, you know, when you get in front of Evangelicals, that's what they're looking -- they're looking for the amen lines. And so his stock went up Saturday night.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Steven Waldman, how do you see the McCain -- McCain's relationship with white Evangelicals?

STEVEN WALDMAN: Well, first, these polls that we've been talking about do show that Obama is not getting them yet. But they also show that McCain is doing worse than George Bush did at this point.

So there's a group of Evangelicals that has become alienated from the Republican Party and they're now in the undecided camp, maybe 10 percent, 15 percent. And that's the big swing group among moderates. Are they going to go back to Republicans -- perfectly possible -- or are they going to go over to Obama?

There's something else about McCain, which is that this whole line that McCain was having trouble with Evangelicals in a big pervasive way, we need to separate two things out. He had trouble with Evangelical leaders.

Even in the primaries, he did much better among Evangelical rank-and-file voters than a lot of people thought. So I think that he -- it's perfectly plausible that McCain could do just as well at the end of the day as Bush did among Evangelicals.

Paramount issues

Rev. Joel Hunter
Northland Church
If there is room for [Obama] to give a case that thousands or hundreds of thousands of babies can be saved by supporting mothers who decide to carry their babies to term, that may be enough.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rev. Land, or Dr. Land, let me come back to you as we wrap this up. What issues ultimately are going to make -- or issue is going to ultimately make the most difference for these voters?

RICHARD LAND: Well, the life issue is going to be the paramount issue, but there are other issues. There's certainly the issue of creation care.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean care of the environment?

RICHARD LAND: That's right, care of the environment. He's probably the most pro-environment Republican nominee in a generation.

I think that the security issue is going to be an issue. I think the economy is going to be an issue.

But, once again, for Evangelical voters, the priority issue, the number-one issue is going to be life, the sanctity of human life from conception onward.

And as Steven pointed out, younger Evangelicals are even more thoroughgoingly pro-life than older Evangelicals are. And they want an expansion of the agenda, but they're not going to accept an exchange of agendas.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Reverend Hunter, another word -- a final thought on that, on what issue is going to make the most difference?

REV. JOEL HUNTER: That certainly is. The life issue is the key issue.

Now, how you parse it -- I think, if there is room for him to give a case that thousands or hundreds of thousands of babies can be saved by supporting mothers who decide to carry their babies to term, that may be enough, when you talk about the other lives that could be saved, through the issues of AIDS, there's millions of lives there, the creation care, also lots of lives, 30,000 a day die from poverty. And so that could be a strong life issue, also.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We're going to leave it there. Gentlemen, thank you, all three.