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After The Election: Whither The Religious Right?


This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about the future of the religious right as the Bush administration exits the stage and President-elect Obama begins to put his administration together. We're also going to talk about the coalition of groups that united in support of Obama but may have some conflicting goals now that he's elected. My guest is Steven Waldman, the founder and editor-in-chief of the Web site Beliefnet, which deals with all aspects of faith, including religion and politics. He's also the author of the book "Founding Faith: Providence and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America." He's the former national editor of U.S. News & World Report. Steven Waldman, welcome back to Fresh Air. How do you think the religious right is interpreting the loss of the Republican Party?

Mr. STEVEN WALDMAN: (Editor-in-Chief, Beliefnet.com): Well, very defensively, and there's a big battle going on within the Republican Party right now over what the role of the religious right was. Religious conservatives point out that they were crucial to the margin that John McCain got. In fact, they turned out in record numbers this election. But others within the party are saying, it's because the religious conservatives dragged us too far to the right on social issues that we lost. So there's a certain amount of scapegoating happening against the religious right, and a certain amount of defensiveness on the religious conservatives saying, hey, we're the ones who showed up.

GROSS: Do you think that there's a split within the Republican Party among evangelicals themselves about what direction to head in?

Mr. WALDMAN: There is a split among evangelicals that is largely a generational split, that younger evangelicals have a different set of issues that they care about than older evangelicals. I should say that abortion is one issue where they agree. This is a bit of misconception sometimes, that liberal evangelicals or younger evangelicals don't care about social issues. That's not really true. They care as much about abortion as their parents do. But they are much more liberal on gay marriage and the environment and other issues and want there to be a broader agenda. And some of the more traditional evangelicals believe that it is the - these cultural issues that ought to remain dominant.

GROSS: So how is that split playing out? Like, who are some of the leaders of each side there?

Mr. WALDMAN: You have a debate going on among evangelical leaders that is partly about left-right issues, should they be conservative, should they have a broader agenda. And it's partially about engagement in politics in the first place. There's been this question, among some anyway, that the involvement of evangelicals in the political system hasn't helped Christianity, hasn't helped the evangelical brand, as it were. But you have others who are arguing, we can't divorce our values from our faith, and we, we have just as much of a moral obligation as we ever have to stress issues like abortion and gay marriage. And they point to things like the passage of Proposition 8 in California as evidence that, on those issues, they're just as strong as ever. In fact, they point to that as the road map for what they should do more of.

GROSS: So, where did Sarah Palin fit in terms of the split that you're just describing?

Mr. WALDMAN: I think on balance, Sarah Palin probably hurt the ticket more than it helped because it did energize evangelical voters but alienated more moderate or independent voters. But if you look at the polls about Sarah Palin's popularity as she's fallen in all sorts of other groups and become unpopular among many Americans, that's not true among conservative evangelicals, where she is still very popular.

GROSS: A way that I could see Palin as being a divider within the evangelical community is over the issue of climate change. There is a movement, the Creation Care Movement, within the evangelical movement to emphasize climate change and what we need to do to prevent that from getting worse. Palin was saying that she wasn't even sure that human behavior was responsible for climate change.

Mr. WALDMAN: So far, the advocates of evangelicals playing a greater role in climate change have not been able to deliver the real numbers at the polls. And there's definitely more conversation about it, but if you look at the evangelicals who voted for John McCain, which was still three-quarters of them, they list the environment quite low down on the list of importance. So you have this split that's quite stark in the evangelical community among the majority of evangelicals, who still have a very traditional set of views. They still emphasize abortion and gay marriage as the top issues. They still put environment much, much lower down on the list. Then you have this other group of kind of moderate and progressive evangelicals and especially younger evangelicals who are more liberal on gay marriage, put a much greater emphasis on the environment and reducing poverty as an issue and, in general, want their faith to be expressed in different ways. It is a younger portion. It is outspoken, but so far, it is a distinct minority.

GROSS: I'd like your impressions of the significance of Proposition 8 in California, which defined marriage as one man and one woman and basically overturned the legalization of gay marriage in California. Now Proposition 8 is being contested, but in the meantime gay marriage is outlawed in California. You know, in an election where the Republicans lost, and Sarah Palin and her emphasis on faith was seen as perhaps one of the reasons why the Republicans lost, Proposition 8 won in California. So what's your interpretation of that?

Mr. WALDMAN: Well, of course, religious conservatives are pointing to this exact fact to say this was not a repudiation of conservative values, it was a repudiation of John McCain and that if you look at Prop 8, it shows that many Americans share the concerns of religious conservatives on issues like gay marriage. To me, the most interesting thing about Prop 8 is that what really put it over the top was not primarily a massive turnout of evangelicals. It was that African Americans and Latinos supported Proposition 8. And that points to a very interesting fact about the Democratic Coalition. The Democratic Coalition now includes groups that are liberal on economics, liberal on foreign policy, but in some ways quite conservative on social policy, especially on gay marriage and abortion, specifically the Latino vote, which shifted in the Democratic direction in a very substantial way. Latino voters tend to be more conservative on these issues. So even though Barack Obama has a very strong winning coalition, he needs to be aware that a part of how he got this winning coalition is with groups that are more conservative socially.

GROSS: So you think that those more conservative groups are going to be lobbying Obama on issues like gay marriage and abortion?

Mr. WALDMAN: That's one of the most interesting questions I think I'm going to be watching over the next few years. Clearly they are more conservative on abortion and gay marriage. But they don't necessarily put that at the very top of their agenda. I think they're still more concerned about the economy and healthcare. So Obama is fine politically-speaking to focus on those issues certainly in the short run. But what are the big booby traps that Obama might step in that would start to alienate Latinos, in particular, from supporting him? I think the first issue that's going to kind of test this potential split within the Democratic coalition is going to be abortion and abortion reduction. One of the most interesting things to me in the campaign was that Obama started stressing in the last few months what he called the abortion reduction agenda. And his surrogates, meaning religious progressives, religious, often pro-life Obama people were out in the field saying, we're pro-life, we're against abortion and we're voting for Barack Obama, because we think he supports some new ways of doing things that will actually reduce the number of abortions. On the other hand, pro-choice groups were out with their ads saying Obama is going to emphasize keeping abortion legal. So the president-elect now has the dilemma of how to balance these two different voices within the Democratic Party. That's going to be one the toughest balancing acts that President-elect Obama has to face in the next couple of years.

GROSS: I guess in some ways, I don't see why that's a hard thing to do, because it seems to me, you could definitely keep abortion legal and at the same time help people avoid unplanned or unwanted pregnancies.

Mr. WALDMAN: A lot of the difficulty comes at the rhetorical level. During the process for writing the Democratic Party platform, the religious Democrats wanted language that said, we support keeping abortion legal but reducing the number. Pro-choice Democrats said, we don't want to say we're in favor of reducing the number of abortions because that would imply that abortion is an immoral decision, and we want it to be viewed as a value-neutral proposition, or at least something that is entirely up to the individual to decide what the morality is. So even on the question of, can we say we want to reduce the number of abortions, there was a conflict. And in classic political form, the way the conflict was resolved was the Obama people sided with the pro-choice people on that language. They did not use the language, we're going to reduce the number of abortions, in the platform. But then, once the campaign got into full swing, Biden and Obama did say it. They just said flat out these things that they didn't put in the platform, meaning they wanted to reduce the number of abortions. So the way to thread the needle on policy grounds is you keep abortion legal and then you do these other things to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies. But it's very hard to just stick to the policy grounds without getting tangled up in the moral issue.

GROSS: My guest is Steven Waldman, and he's the founder and editor-in-chief of the website Beliefnet.com. One of the things on Barack Obama's to-do list is to lift restrictions against the funding of embryonic stem cell research, restrictions that were imposed by President Bush. Do you expect a strong protest from evangelicals on that?

Mr. WALDMAN: I think the evangelicals and also the Catholic church will be very upset with that decision from President-elect Obama. And one of the things he's going to have to decide is how to time all these things. He has made a variety of different promises on abortion and life issues, some of which cut in the kind of pro-choice direction and some of which cut in the more pro-life direction. And everyone is going to be watching to see what does he do first, what does he emphasize. Is he going to try to pull this all together in a kind of big compromise that makes both people feel like they've won something? So timing is going to be really interesting here. If that's the first thing he does and if he also loosens restrictions so that family planning money overseas can go to groups that provide abortion, which is another first issue, that will certainly thrill pro-choice groups and infuriate pro-life groups, and it will mean that he'll have to fairly soon thereafter show that he was serious on the abortion reduction side of his agenda.

GROSS: During the presidential campaign, there were pundits and various conservatives who were trying to make it seem like Barack Obama is or once was a Muslim. And there are still people who believe that Obama is or was a Muslim. I mean, not that there's anything wrong with being a Muslim, but it's just not true.

Mr. WALDMAN: And in a Beliefnet survey, 42 percent of McCain voters said that he is or was a Muslim, which is really a startling, large number. So one thing that just raises questions about is simply how people get their information and whether, in the kind of internet new media world, it's just becoming easier and easier for people to live in information bubbles. There's a second stream out of that which I'm now seeing, which is a different set of people arguing that Obama is not a real Christian in a different way, which is not that he's a Muslim but that because he seems to hold certain liberal theological views - for instance, he has said that he doesn't believe that the only path to heaven is through Christ, that therefore he's not a Christian and he should stop calling himself a Christian.

GROSS: In other words, he doesn't think that people who are Muslim or Jewish are condemned to eternal hell because they're not Christians, whereas some Christians do believe that anybody of any other faith or of no faith is going to hell. You just have to be a Christian.

Mr. WALDMAN: Right. He believes that other people who do good will go to heaven, and the most poignant example he gave of this was when he was confronted in a private meeting of religious groups by Reverend Franklin Graham on this question. He said, do you believe that salvation comes only through Christ? Obama said, my mother was not a Christian, and yet she was, you know, the best person, the most noble person he knows and that he has a hard time believing that she is not in heaven. Now, that is an idea that everyone can have sympathy with on a personal level, but it is an idea that contradicts a lot of basic traditional Christian theology. So you have this new argument sprouting, in the blogosphere at least, among conservatives saying Obama should stop calling himself a Christian, because he's rejected basic Christian theology. And then you have moderate or progressive Christians defending Obama saying, you're completely misinterpreting what Christianity means, and we also believe that you can gain salvation without necessarily believing in Christ. So once again, we have this political issue of, you know, how do we view Obama spilling into these ancient and quite energetic theological debates. And a lot of why people either like or dislike Obama, for some people, actually flows from their views on these theology issues.

GROSS: Since you spend so much of your life thinking and writing about religion and the role of religion in public life and in politics, I'm interested in hearing what you're hoping Obama's public expression of faith will be when he moves into the White House. Or what you're hoping it won't be.

Mr. WALDMAN: I would like to see Obama carry on in the tradition of many of the previous presidents, which is to certainly express, if it's comfortable for him, a sense of personal faith and even a sense of God's guidance to him or the country in the ways that other presidents have, but to keep it in a vein that is broadly appealing and persuasive and welcoming to a very broad range of Americans. To me, the one misstep that Bush had in his personal expressions of faith was not so much something he said, but that at his inauguration he had Franklin Graham issue a prayer in the name of Jesus Christ. Now that was a departure from the tradition which was to use religious references that were very, very inclusive. And I would assume that Obama would return to the tradition that emphasized religious language that most accepted and welcomed the broadest range of Americans. Now, that kind of approach is going to be frustrating and maybe even infuriating to nonreligious Americans who sit there wondering, why does my president have to refer to God at all? But in that case, Obama, if he does that, will be following in a pretty traditional approach to the use of religion in American life.

GROSS: Steven Waldman, thank you so much for talking with us. Always a pleasure to talk with you.

Mr. WALDMAN: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Steven Waldman is the founder and editor-in-chief of the religion website Beliefnet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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