"If these brick walls could talk…" The man behind the counter of Wired Espresso café in Jackson, Mississippi, pauses, looks them over and recalls the occupation of this town by General William T Sherman during the Civil War. The General’s army was quartered in these very buildings on State Street, his horses stabled in the Capitol across the road, and he himself bedded down around the corner, above the brothel.
Back then, the Republicans were the enemy of the South.
"Even in the 1930s people used to say that if you were a Republican, you were goin’ straight to Hell,’" says proprietor and local pastor, Gary Davis. Republicans tightened their grip on the South during the upheavals of the 1960s, by running conservative agendas. Then in the 1980s, evangelical preacher Billy Graham switched on the religious vote for his friend Ronald Reagan. Since then the words southern, conservative, religious and Republican have become synonyms.
But Gary thinks this is changing. "I think there’s a new generation coming that’s not going to be sold on the idea that the Republicans are the anointed Christian party," he says. In Gary’s congregation, younger voters are looking for more than just a litmus test on a couple of moral issues. Barack Obama appeals to them as a Jesus-the-social-worker kind of guy.
Stephen Waldman is founder and president of the spiritual website beliefnet.com. He believes many religious voters broke away from Republicans after Bush’s lies and his mismanagement of the war in Iraq. "They feel their faith in him was misplaced, and they feel used," he says.
According to Steven Mansfield, author of The Faith of Barack Obama, voters who felt that only the Republicans could represent their religious views are now being given a choice. "Previously, even Democratic presidential candidates who were religious would say that they wouldn’t bring their religion to the Oval Office," he says. "Obama, on the other hand, is saying he’s every bit as faith-based as Bush."
The difference, says Mansfield, is Obama’s interpretation of faith. "Bush was heavily influenced by the moral ideals of the religious right, especially on abortion and gay marriage. Obama is applying his theology more holistically. He intends to bring the ethical teachings of Jesus more directly into public policy."
"I’ve never seen this before in the Christian community," Cameron Strang, founder of Christian youth magazine Relevant, told Bloomberg News. "They’re staunchly morally conservative still, but they’re saying maybe there’s a different paradigm." Strang says that his readers are interested in a broader definition of ‘pro-life’: a fight against poverty, war, disease, global warming, genocide.
Although they haven’t given up on abortion, many are seeking alternative approaches. The mission statement for "Evangelicals for Obama" says, "While pro-choice, (Obama’s) policies will do more to reduce abortion than any policies presented by pro-life candidates in recent years."
"No matter how many times the abortion issue is raised, it never changes," says Annie, 28, a member of Highpoint church in Memphis, and from a strong Republican family. "I wouldn’t have voted Democrat before now, but the Bush Administration have really turned me off and made Christians look bad. Obama seems different."
Joshua DuBois, 25, Obama’s director of religious affairs, concedes that the most committed pro-lifers probably won’t vote for him. "But others will be open to him because they see he’s a man of integrity, a person of faith who listens to and understands people of all religious backgrounds," he says.
Therein lies the genius of the Democrat campaign: forgo the "committed pro-lifers" and their ilk and pitch at the moderate religious centre. As a result, the Republicans have found themselves awkwardly attached to the more extreme positions of the Christian right — they’ve been wedged by their own wedge. More than an unlucky drift, this has been a key part of the Democrat strategy from day one.
Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki says they have been "reaching out to young people of all faiths, including Evangelicals, by holding house parties, hosting events with key supporters and even holding rock concerts."
In June, Obama met with 30 religious leaders to thrash out their needs and determine how fully he could satisfy them. Only some of them have gone so far as to endorse him, but nearly all have accepted him as legitimately religious, and do not oppose him as they did Kerry and Gore. This clear religious identification has closed down the line of attack from the middle and sent it out further to the right, whose smear attacks have turned moderates off the McCain-Palin ticket.
"They’ve got a long way before they get back to being the party of religion, but they’re definitely trying to chip away at that reputation," says Stephen Waldman.
"I think a lot of religious people will hold their nose and vote for Obama on economy, but disagree on moral issues. In good times cultural issues tend to be more important, so if Obama wins he’ll have a few years to change the way religious voters feel about the Democrats."
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