Obama’s Supposed “Religion Dilemma” and American Exceptionalism

There’s been an effort to blame the Democrats’ midterm losses on their failure to do effective religious outreach, but even advocates of more religious outreach admitted at a presentation at the Brookings Institution this week that religion wasn’t a cause of the Democrats’ defeats. Still, though, they issued ominous warnings of Obama’s future “religion dilemma,” a theory spun out of little more than the president’s supposed failure to bend to conservative God and country narratives.

At a discussion of post-election polling data released by the Public Religion Research Institute on Wednesday, Brookings scholars E.J. Dionne and William Galston rightly noted that the party lost ground in almost every demographic group, and that the economy was the driving force of the election. “To see issues related to religious or cultural issues as central to the 2010 outcome is, we believe, a mistake,” they wrote in their analysis of the PRRI data.

Yet, in a crucial caveat that these two say portends an intense culture war confrontation between the right and the left lies a potential battle among Democrats: how to react to the right’s smears that Obama is neither a genuine Christian nor a genuine American.

Dionne and Galston, however, did not frame the issue in a way that anticipated any objection from Obama’s base over allowing the right to dictate the course of debate — as if there should be any at all — about Obama’s religion and patriotism. Instead, they seemed to accept as a given the notion that Obama would have to conceive of a counter-narrative that wouldn’t be too offensive to the Christian nation American exceptionalists.

The pair leaned heavily on PRRI’s data, which asked respondents in the post-election survey questions about whether Obama’s religious beliefs were similar to theirs, whether Democrats and Republicans paid too much or too little attention to religious leaders, and — in what Galston highlighted as an issue presenting an “uphill battle” for Democrats challenging the “American exceptionalism” narrative — whether “God has granted America a special role in human history.”

The PRRI survey found higher rates of approval of Obama among people who felt they have similar religious beliefs to the president, and high disapproval rates among those who didn’t. No surprise there. But the survey doesn’t take into account other variables — such as the propagation and viral dissemination of conspiracy theories about him in conservative circles, or even more simply, opposition to his actual or perceived policy positions. Indeed those who say Obama’s religious beliefs are very different from their own could be basing that answer on conservative propaganda that Obama is — take your pick — a Muslim, Marxist, socialist, communist, abortion-loving, homosexual-agenda-embracing fake Christian, and really have no idea what Obama’s actual religious beliefs are. The PRRI report notes (emphasis in original):

There is a critical difference between Americans who say Obama’s religious beliefs are very different and those who say they are only somewhat different. Among those who say his religious beliefs are only somewhat different, a majority (56%) still have a favorable view of him, although this is significantly lower than among those who see their beliefs as similar to the President’s.

This is not a “religion dilemma.” We’ve known from numerous surveys over the years that there’s a high correlation between frequent church attendance and more conservative political beliefs, and pretending to walk the evangelical walk or talk the evangelical talk doesn’t help Democrats bridge that political divide. To wit: Obama might pray with evangelical megachurch pastors or receive scripture on his Blackberry, but no one cares. There’s a long-standing push to get Obama to pick a church in Washington and attend regularly, and while that might make religious folks who share beliefs with the chosen church happy, I can guarantee you that conservatives who question Obama’s lack of church attendance would just as readily question his choice of church. If Obama decides to pick a church (and to be clear, I don’t think he should have to), wouldn’t it be amazing if it were one with a strong social justice tradition, and if he picked it for that reason and without apology, and without seeming as if he were cowering under the threat of a Jeremiah Wright redux?

America and American Christianity — and the separation of church and state — have a strong social justice and constitutional tradition that is just as Christian and just as American as the domineering narratives of the right. That Galston would fret over Democrats challenging the right’s American exceptionalism narrative is deeply troubling. As I’ve reported recently, conservatives, spurred by the ahistorical renderings of Newt Gingrich and others, wrap the exceptionalism narrative into a pat us-versus-them package: that Obama doesn’t understand the divine roots of the American founding, probably because he’s not really a Christian and not really an American, and only by electing the likes of Michele Bachmann or Jim DeMint can we ensure that the Christian nation ship can be righted again.

By framing the confrontation of this narrative as an “uphill battle,” Democrats make the enormous and unnecessary mistake of placing themselves in the position of the counter-cultural underdog. The conservatives have no special right to own the American exceptionalism narrative, and Democrats shouldn’t yield that ground to them. They need an America narrative of their own, one that is just as forceful and unapologetic as the right’s.