Electionpocalypse, Part I (Christianity)

The final stretch of the presidential campaign is bringing out the last-minute scramble for a miracle, whether it be undecided voters in a swing state breaking your candidate’s way or prodding the apathetic to the voting booth on November 6th.

Or, to put a different spin on the phenomenon: we’re now seeing the dumbest of religious appeals, the most craven partisan tactics, a dramatic spike in proof-texting the Bible to score political points, and dire prophecies.

Focus on the Family’s political arm is sending Iowa voters a flyer claiming that President Obama thinks “we’re no longer a Christian nation” (read: we were once a Christian nation but bwwaaahahahahahaha, my evil Islamo-socialist plan has worked!). In case you had questions, Obama was merely discussing how we’re a pluralistic nation of many faiths, something that people claiming to be protecting religious freedom might pay a mind to. But Obama is an oppressor of Christianity, in the view of the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins, who tweeted that “#Obamacare seems aimed squarely at dismantling and/or silencing the family and the Church.”

Billy Graham (or, as many suspect, someone speaking on the 94-year-old evangelist’s behalf) put his name on an advertisement that reads, “I strongly urge you to vote for candidates who support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and woman, protect the sanctity of life, and defend our religious freedoms.” We heard from Chuck Colson—from the grave—as Timothy George, who insisted in a Christian Post opinion piece that, “Chuck’d be proud of Billy.”

Would Chuck be proud of his successor, Eric Metaxas, who defended the “sanctity of life” by making fun of the liberals and government while peoples’ lives, homes, and livelihoods were destroyed in Sandy? On Monday, Metaxas tweetedjokes” like “Manhattan is now TOTALLY surrounded by water. #stormhype”; “If George W. Bush had signed the Kyoto Treaty, none of this would be happening. #allDubyasfault” (since deleted); and “I can’t get a 64 oz. soda anywhere in the city. The Federal Government needs to do something.” As of this writing the U.S. death toll attributed to Sandy has topped 80.

The Christian Post, the subject of an intense investigation by Christianity Today (which was founded by the elder Graham), was also the venue for a Romney endorsement by Richard Land, who serves as the magazine’s executive editor. CT’s investigation of CP was no mere matter of Christian media competition: the man really at the helm of CP, David Jang, reportedly has a history with the Unification Church, and may have claimed to the Second Coming of Christ, an apostasy far more alarming to many Christians than a second Obama presidency. (Never mind that, owing to the Jang controversy, the Southern Baptist Convention has refused to engage in a real estate transaction with another organization tied to Jang, yet Land carries on.)

Land, disgraced from his position as the Southern Baptist Convention’s “ethics” guru after admitting to plagiarizing racist rants about the Trayvon Martin case, broke his pledge not to endorse a candidate because “America is at a fork in the road and must choose between a President Barack Obama who wants to remake America in the model of a European welfare state and a Governor Mitt Romney who wants to restore a more economically vibrant and traditionally moral America.”

Bishop Joseph Mattera takes a ghoulish math lesson from Numbers 35:33 (“You shall not pollute the land wherein you are; for blood it defiles the land; and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it. Defile not therefore the land, which you shall inhabit.”) This means, Mattera insists, that God will require the death of millions of American to “repent” for legal abortion. “[I]f America does not repent of this hideous sin then for every single baby legally aborted God will require the blood of the same number of people, which is between 30-50 million Americans!” he writes. (NB: this “pro-life” position bears more of a relationship to a book on numerology than the Book of Numbers.)

Anti-marriage equality crusader Bishop Harry Jackson, who is African American, urges readers to vote for Romney “as a statement of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream.” While King was sitting in the Birmingham jail, Romney was tormenting boys with long hair at Cranbrook, and his Church was still 15 years away from lifting its ban on black men serving in the priesthood. Romney was still nearly half a century away from pronouncing his contempt for the 47% at a Boca Raton fundraiser, which, when you think about it, is kind of like King’s last speech to the Memphis sanitation workers, right?

Pastor Robert Jeffress, who just a year ago endorsed Rick Perry over Romney in the Republican Primary, and called Mormonism a cult, is now telling pastors in Florida—even though he still thinks Mormonism is a cult—that “It’s time to stand up and push back against all the evil in our country.” He suggested that failing to go out to vote for Romney would be like being a pastor in Germany in the 1930s and failing to try to stop the Holocaust.

Meanwhile, Charisma magazine appears to be the Grand Central Station of election prophecy. On its pages, publisher Stephen Strang has posted his Romney endorsement, along with some dire warnings by other “prophetic” voices, like Franklin Graham, who warned: “This could be America’s last call to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, who is coming again one day very soon to save His own and to judge those who don’t know and worship Him.” (emphasis in original).

Strang, like Franklin Graham, was one of several influential evangelicals then-candidate Obama invited to a faithy outreach meeting in Chicago in 2008. Afterwards, both clearly indicated they were unpersuaded, and would not be voting for Obama. Obama might have gleaned a few more evangelical votes than John Kerry did in 2004, but polling this year shows white evangelicals—even the millennials, thought to be more persuadable to the Obama side—solidly lining up for Romney. The Obama campaign’s religious outreach has been run by a young former aide in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and has barely registered a ripple in coverage of the campaign.

Until the bitter end, of course, when, less than two weeks before election day, we learn that President Obama might be—wait for it—evangelical. Dutifully chronicled by CNN’s Belief Blog editor, Dan Gilgoff, the story is three parts recycled Obama-prays-with-Kirbyjon Caldwell-and-T.D.-Jakes reports, and one part vague meandering about how “translating the Good Book into progressive politics has always been a mainstay of Obama’s political biography.”

The story opens with prosperity preacher Kirbyjon Caldwell recalling his prayer on the phone with Obama before the first presidential debate in Denver (are they trying to advertise the ineffectiveness of prayer?): “I would pray that your primary will and words that you want the president to say will fall from his lips.” Gilgoff futher recounts: “Obama, for his part, was mostly silent.” Could it be because he thinks Caldwell’s from-God’s-will-to-my-lips business was just a sham? Caldwell has an answer, of course, which Gilgoff reports without question: “‘There’s a profound and genuine humility in the presence of Christ himself,’ Caldwell says, describing the president on such calls. ‘I think he recognizes it as a holy moment.’”

I’m going to take a holy moment right here, if that’s alright.

Caldwell, who is also close to George W. Bush, endorsed Obama in 2008; at the time, progressives were chagrined over, among other things, his apparent affection for “ex-gay” therapy. Yet Caldwell plays a central role in Gilgoff’s story as chief witness for Obama’s “evolving” and “deepening” and increasingly “evangelical” faith. 

Here’s the reality: white evangelicals are an ever-shrinking proportion of the electorate: according to a recent Public Religion Research Institute poll, they make up 30% of those 65 and older, but just 9% of 18- to 29-year-olds. A recent Pew poll found that now the “nones” make up the same segment of the population (19%) as white evangelicals. And the younger the cohort studied, the more likely that a “none” is an atheist or agnostic. 

There’s no convincing the evangelical partisans, though. As Metaxas demonstrated at one of the president’s most strenuous efforts at demonstrating his evangelical cred, the National Prayer Breakfast, not even they are buying it. Metaxas’ speech, delivered right before Obama’s, was widely read by conservatives as a preemptive rebuke to Obama’s own “phony religiosity.” 

Meanwhile, the Rev. Derrick Harkins, the Democratic National Committee’s point man on faith, asserts that faith is “integral” to the Party. But whose faith? A combined 30% of Obama’s support comes from voters who are not Christian: 23% from the unaffiliated and 7% from non-Christian religious voters. By contrast, just 10% of Romney’s support comes from non-Christians (8% unaffiliated, 2% non-Christian religious). How many points does Obama really score by burnishing his evangelical cred? Does it outpace the losses of those put off by it? As his opponents gin up conspiracy theories, he could just let the religion card drop. It really wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email