The Failure of Obama’s Faith Strategy Revealed

The Times reports this morning that after he announced his support for same-sex marriage last week, President Obama rushed to explain himself to anti-gay pastors with whom had maintained close relationships:

In the hours following Mr. Obama’s politically charged announcement on Wednesday, the president and his team embarked on a quiet campaign to contain the possible damage among religious leaders and voters. He also reached out to one or more of the five spiritual leaders he calls regularly for religious guidance, and his aides contacted other religious figures who have been supportive in the past.

The damage-control effort underscored the anxiety among Mr. Obama’s advisers about the consequences of the president’s revised position just months before what is expected to be a tight re-election vote. While hailed by liberals and gay-rights leaders for making a historic breakthrough, Mr. Obama recognized that much of the country is uncomfortable with or opposed to same-sex marriage, including many in his own political coalition.

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After the interview, Mr. Obama hit the phones. Among those he called was one of the religious leaders he considers a touchstone, the Rev. Joel C. Hunter, the pastor of a conservative megachurch in Florida.

“Some of the faith communities are going to be afraid that this is an attack against religious liberty,” Mr. Hunter remembered telling the president.

“Absolutely not,” Mr. Obama insisted. “That’s not where we’re going, and that’s not what I want.”

Even some of Mr. Obama’s friends in the religious community warned that he risked alienating followers, particularly African-Americans who have been more skeptical of the idea than other Democratic constituencies.

The Rev. Jim Wallis, another religious adviser to Mr. Obama and the president and chief executive of Sojourners, a left-leaning evangelical organization, said that he had fielded calls since the announcement from pastors across the country, including African-American and Hispanic ministers. Religious leaders, he said, are deeply divided, with some seeing it as the government forcing clergy to accept a definition of marriage that they consider anathema to their teachings.

Mr. Wallis said that it was clear to him that the president’s decision was a matter of personal conscience, not public policy. But he said that some religious leaders wanted to hear Mr. Obama say that explicitly. “We hope the president will reach out to people who disagree with him on this,” Mr. Wallis said. “The more conservative churches need to know, need to be reassured that their religious liberty is going to be respected here.”

Mr. Obama has reached out to Mr. Wallis, Mr. Hunter and three other ministers for telephone prayer sessions and discussions about the intersection of religion and public policy.

Here’s the corner Obama painted himself into: in a 2008 effort to appeal to evangelicals, he reached out to and surrounded himself with anti-gay, anti-abortion ministers who nonetheless touted their concerns with other issues such as poverty, the economy, and the environment. It’s not that there aren’t religious figures out there who are concerned with all of those things and are also pro-LGBT rights and pro-reproductive rights. Obama’s was a calculated move to make anti-gay, anti-abortion voters more comfortable voting for him. That’s why every move he’s made on the “culture war” issues such as LGBT rights and reproductive health care has been subject to delicate balancing (even though the pastors he’s trying to placate claim they are not culture warriors). 

Now Obama apparently risks alienating those figures with whom he worked so hard to cultivate relationships. As the Washington Post first reported last week, Hunter’s “fears were not soothed by assurances from Obama and the White House that the president’s view would have no bearing on churches or religious groups.” (In 2008, Hunter supported a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages in his home state of Florida.) In other words, despite the fact that every gay marriage law that has passed state legislatures has included exemptions for and assurances to religious organizations that they would not be compelled to perform or otherwise assist same-sex ceremonies, “religious freedom” will be the cover for pastors and their followers who are loathe to use the bigoted language of someone like Bryan Fischer but nonetheless are opposed to marriage equality. This isn’t the first time Hunter has raised “religious freedom” concerns. He did it in response to the Obama administration’s contraception coverage requirement under the Affordable Care Act as well. 

As for Wallis (who has already been abandoned by pro-marriage equality faith leaders over his refusal to run a Mothers’ Day ad last year depicting a lesbian couple at church), his Sojourners organization, described in the Times’ piece as “left-leaning,” refused to support the president’s statement of support for marriage equality. (For a run-down of last year’s controversy, and pro-LGBT faith leaders’, including evangelicals’ opposition to Wallis, see this post.) The Sojourners statement instead called on the president “to find common ground with those who do not agree with his position on same-sex marriage and believe that open, respectful, and civil discourse on these issues is very important. For all of us, our relationships with friends and family, and our faith convictions will influence our views on these matters. We believe the best path forward is a legal system that respects the rights and responsibilities of all couples, gay or straight, and also respects the religious liberty of faith communities to define marriage consistent with their theology and scriptural understanding.” 

As Jay and I discussed last week, Obama now believes his faith convictions influence his pro-marriage equality stance. That stance does not force other people to agree with him, nor do laws legalizing same sex marriage compel houses of worship to perform same-sex marriages. That’s pretty good common ground, I think. Besides, if “new” evangelicals care about the environment, and care about poverty, and care about global warming as they claim, will Obama’s merely personal statement about marriage equality cause them to stay home or vote Republican?  

Last week I discussed these issues on the Rev. Welton Gaddy’s State of Belief radio program. There’s in-studio video:

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