Heart filled with joy, Fran Eaton walked out of services at Parkview Christian, a huge evangelical church on the south side of Chicago — then saw an Obama bumper sticker on a car in the church parking lot and nearly threw up. “I wanted to say, ‘What are you thinking? I hope this is your first time here!’” she recalls, laughing about how her husband steered her on, afraid that she’d give the car’s owners a piece of her mind. She’s been fretting about Obama since December 2006, when she went to his United Church of Christ church with a friend to check it out. “We were the only white people there,” she says. “Now, they were very kind — I love going to black churches; I love the worship, the enthusiasm — but when I started reading their Web site, I thought, ‘Whoa.’ It’s very, very angry against other races. There’s this animosity and anger that has been welling up for years. I couldn’t believe what [the Rev. Jeremiah Wright] was saying, like it was all our fault. It scared me.”
One of the first to raise the alarm, Eaton wrote about her experiences at the church for “Always Right,” her column in the Southtown Star, a suburban paper in the Sun-Times chain. She hinted that Wright was a black supremacist and wondered whether Obama, after years of membership in a church that emphasized Afrocentrism, would push for racial quotas and affirmative action. She then took her concerns to the Illinois Review, a conservative blog she edits; and to the Illinois Family Institute, for which she also writes a column; and to the Eagle Forum and Concerned Women of America, for whom she lobbies; and to the homeschoolers for whom she advocates, and soon she was being quoted in USA Today (March 20, 2007). A year later, Wright was being cited so frequently, Obama had to distance himself publicly from his pastor’s rhetoric. “Oh, it was so scary to see Barack sailing unchallenged, but he’s damaged now,” Eaton says with satisfaction.
Analysts say what the rest of Illinois is sick of hearing: The only thing special about Illinois is Chicago and how big and blue it is in relation to the other four-fifths of the state. Chicago, land of Obama supporters, is what makes Illinois more religiously diverse than other Midwestern states — and brings its racial and ethnic makeup closer to that of the country as a whole. But the farther south you go, past East St. Louis and Cahokia, your chances of even meeting someone nonwhite drop sharply — and your chances of finding conservative white evangelical Christians shoot high. Dave Smith, executive director of the conservative Illinois Family Institute, has the geography down pat: “There’s upstate Illinois, the Rockford area, pretty conservative; Chicago and the suburbs through Aurora, mostly Democratic; central is kind of a mixture; and downstate there’s actually a little Bible Belt there, metro East St. Louis down through Marion. [Republican candidate Mike] Huckabee took more than 30 percent of the vote.” Smith can recite those Huckabee wins county by county, but he knows that they won’t make a difference: “I don’t think conservative Christians are under any illusion that they can win a blue state for McCain, especially if Obama is at the top of the ticket.”
According to Federal Election Commission stats released March 3, individuals in Illinois have given more than $12 million to Obama, compared with just over $1.3 million given to McCain. Illinois ranked third in the nation in contributions to Democrats and 44th in contributions to Republicans.
Christian conservatives know they’ll never change Illinois’ mind about Obama — so they’re trying to change the nation’s. But why on earth would they prefer cool, restrained Clinton to Obama, who speaks about his Christian faith with a fervor similar to their own? That fervor has been his downfall, says John C. Green, senior fellow of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. “Hillary Clinton isn’t exactly conservative on social issues, but they tend to give her a bit of a break because from their point of view she’s not as deeply religious. Because he talks about his faith in the way they do, they expect him to draw some of the same conclusions.” When he doesn’t, they’re doubly irritated. “Hillary Clinton is an interesting figure — from one perspective, evangelicals tend not to like her,” Green adds. “They didn’t like Bill, and It Takes a Village [Hillary Clinton’s primer on raising children, published in 1996] irritated them, because they see it as collectivism — but they may very well prefer her to Obama.” They certainly prefer her stand on Iraq and terrorism to his. Also, “among many evangelicals there is a kind of temperamental conservatism,” Green says. “They like things to change slowly. Sen. Clinton has been around a long time, so she seems like less of a risk, and — ” the carefully spoken academic hesitates, then says in a rush: “frankly, there may be a bit of a race issue. Maybe many can’t quite put it into words, but they just feel more comfortable with a white woman than a black man.”
Now add the exaggeration of his Muslim grade school into a madrassa (with instant labels of “Barack Hussein Obama” and “Manchurian Madrassa Candidate”) and the nervous-making polemic of his pastor: “The dust-up over the rantings of Jeremiah Wright exposes Barack Obama for what he really is — [an Al] Sharpton (or worse) in sheep’s clothing,” writes Bruno Behrend on the Illinois Review Web site, adding that by distancing himself from Wright Obama is “akin to Peter denying Christ three times before the rooster crows.” Behrend says Obama needs his rhetoric, “because he knows that most of the nation will not elect an angry black candidate running to ‘stick it to the man.’ If elected, sticking it to the man is going to be the driving force of his entire administration.”
There’s more, of course. Obama’s UCC denomination is, in many evangelicals’ eyes, “unbiblical.” And they haven’t forgotten his talk at the UCC convention last June, when he “slammed” (the verb chosen by the Baptist press) evangelical Christian leaders for “hijacking faith” and politicizing its tenets. “The so-called leaders of the Christian Right are all too eager to exploit what divides us,” he said. “At every opportunity they’ve told evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their church while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage, school prayer, and intelligent design.”
Those were brave words — especially when so many evangelical Christians do give top priority to their fight against abortion and same-sex marriage and Obama’s record on both issues is in their minds the most damnable thing about him. One of Fran Eaton’s good friends is Jill Stanek of Mokena, Ill., the nurse who, after holding a 21- to 22-week-old baby with Down syndrome until he died, launched into pro-life activism. The result: an investigation by the Illinois attorney general and the Born Alive Infant Protection Act, defeated in Illinois — with Obama the only opponent who spoke on the record but passed at the federal level. “He alone stood on the floor and absolutely could not bring himself to acknowledge that babies born alive when they were supposed to have been aborted needed to be protected,” Eaton says. “Illinois is bought and paid for by very wealthy pro-abortionists. They will dump $500,000 or $600,000 a year into campaigns, and they have the money to do that,” Eaton says. “One day at the Capitol he was walking by himself, didn’t have an entourage. I said, ‘Senator, congratulations for the hard fight, but I have to tell you something: We are going to pass the Born Alive Infant Protection Act here in Illinois, and I want you to mark my words: It’s going to happen.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘You know what, Fran? I think you’re right, and as a matter of fact I’ve been telling Democrats they need to rethink that.’ What? Here’s the man who fought so hard against it! I don’t to this day understand what he was saying.”
Obama’s opposition to the act was, he’s said, purely pragmatic: He didn’t believe it would stand a constitutional test, because, as he read it, it would in essence render all abortions illegal. When the same issue came before the U.S. Senate, a clause was added to prevent such a reading — and Obama has said he would have supported that version. But because he didn’t push that version through in Illinois the pro-life community has never forgiven him. “Living in this area, I am in tune with the Barack Obama situation,” Eaton says. “I lobbied him in Springfield. He — oh gosh. He thinks he is smarter than anybody. He looks you right in the eye and tells you a lot of very good things you want to hear, and then it’s really a different interpretation. He has spread out the message of a social gospel, fighting poverty, and having mercy on those who are ill, which of course I am for, helping people in need — we are commanded to do that — but he is the most pro-abortion senator I’ve ever dealt with.”
That reputation makes him easy for evangelical conservatives to demonize: “I don’t know much about him, but I’m not crazy about him,” says Pastor Larry Croy of New Testament Baptist Church in Waterloo. “He’s voted very liberally and for abortion and all of that, so I will not be for him.”
Pastor Darrell Weber of Zion Evangelical Church in Millstadt says he’s most deeply concerned about abortion, euthanasia, “partial birth” abortion, the harvesting of stem cells, and cloning: “We are all created in God’s image, and that is not something to be toyed with.” Weber’s church used to be part of the UCC, as Obama’s is, but withdrew in 2005: “Liberalism had permeated that denomination,” he says. “Same-sex marriage, abortion, and a number of other social issues were symptoms of a much greater problem: a denial of the accuracy, the truth, and the inspiration of the Bible.”
Asked for a response to the evangelicals’ comments about Obama, his campaign has no comment.
Christians on the right are far fewer than their voices suggest. According to a new survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the United States is about to become a minority-Protestant country, with the overall total of Protestants barely 51 percent. Roughly half that number consider themselves evangelical, and their politics vary, depending on how closely they feel law and public policy must hew to the exact text of their Bible. In Illinois, roughly one-third of voters are traditional white Protestants — mainline and evangelical combined — and in recent years they’ve tended to vote Republican (in 2004, 63 percent backed Bush). But another third of Illinois voters are Catholic — as are one-third of the state’s elected officials — and their vote’s tougher to predict. Catholicism dips in and out of liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican compartments — emphasizing the “intrinsic evil” of abortion and embryonic stem-cell research and the sanctity of traditional heterosexual marriage but also extending its definition of “pro-life” to include solidarity with the poor and concerns over immigrant rights, the war in Iraq, and the death penalty. “That’s why Catholics get frustrated when we go to vote,” says Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois. “We are politically homeless.”
How that will shake out in the presidential election remains to be seen. In November the U.S. bishops released a document called “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” and although they urge individual Catholics to make up their own minds they state, “The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life is always wrong and is not just one issue among many.”
In January 2007, the Rev. Michael Pfleger of the Archdiocese of Chicago called Obama “the best thing to come across the political scene since Bobby Kennedy.” Jean M. Heimann responded on her Catholic Fire blog with a post titled “Barack Obama and the Priest Who Sold His Soul to the Devil.” She described Obama as one of “the slithering snakes of this world, who sneak up on you before they suck the blood out of you, infecting you with their poisonous venom,” and she urged readers to protest Pfleger’s statement to Cardinal Francis George in Chicago. “[Obama] is the biggest hypocrite in politics today,” she continued. “He has the audacity to call himself Christian, yet strongly supports the slaughter of innocent babies in his own back yard.”
So the Catholic vote isn’t exactly predictable — especially when you factor in the Iraq war, which evangelical conservatives tend to support, to Catholics’ bemusement. Collen Nolan, director of the Illinois chapter of Concerned Women for America, says the organization doesn’t have a position on the war. “The core issues are traditional family,” she explains. “If you can protect the vulnerable and the weak of our society, other things fall into place after that.”
In Eaton’s mind, we’re fighting in Iraq to preserve Western values — chief among them Christian feminism. “Radical religious beliefs” — she means Islamic radical religious beliefs — “have put us in a defensive position. We can’t ignore those who would like to destroy our way of life. There is a cultural war with people who would like the Western civilization to be different. Jesus treated women with such respect, and they want to go back into the teaching of Muhammad and those who would want us to be squelched.”
Move leftward from Eaton to the middle of the continuum — or downward in time, to the next generation of evangelicals — and the verdict changes. Younger and less absolute evangelical Christians aren’t so sanguine about the war in Iraq. They’re every bit as staunch as Eaton’s ilk in opposing abortion, but they’re not nearly as het up about homosexuality. It doesn’t resonate with them when Smith, at the Illinois Family Institute, says the same-sex marriage issue is “front and center in concern,” urges a full repeal of the state law that added sexual orientation and gender identity to the Illinois Human Rights Act, files obscenity complaints against radio shock jocks, writes about “San Fransicko (liberal) values,” or calls homosexual marriage “a fad that is quickly fading.”
Centrist, moderate evangelicals’ concerns are broadening quickly as the old evangelical leaders die or fade into the sunset. The new breed of pastor is pulling back from the old political skirmishes and preaching stewardship of the environment and a concern for issues of poverty, personal debt, HIV/AIDS (about which the traditional evangelicals are less worried than any other segment of the population, according to Barna Institute surveys), immigration (some see their success in evangelizing immigrants as outweighing the social chaos caused by their presence), and global justice. They’re the unknown quantity in this election, and some, like Dr. Dwight Stinnett, executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of the Great Rivers Region, personally like the risks Obama has taken in scolding all extremists — right-wing, radical black activist, or fuzzy white liberal — by saying, essentially, “This isn’t working.”
Meanwhile, Eaton and her colleagues battle on, bracing for disappointment. In November, Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly promised members of the conservative organization, at a meeting in Birmingham, Ala.: “We will come out of it; we have in the past and we will again.” She’d already written a laundry list for the next president: Among other things, he or she must pledge the use of the nation’s highest office to protect unborn life, traditional marriage, and American sovereignty; screen out “activist” judges; reject the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; consider it a presidential duty to prevent illegal entry into our country; and protect parents’ rights to protect their children against such things as mental-health screenings and nosy questionnaires about sex, drugs, and suicide. Nobody was going to fill that bill — certainly not Republican frontrunner John McCain, who so famously condemned evangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as “agents of intolerance” eight years ago and is nibbling the words today. Focus on the Family founder James Dobson has refused to vote for him, saying he’s “convinced Sen. McCain is not a conservative and in fact has gone out of his way to stick his thumb in the eyes of those who are.”
And now they’re rubbing their eyes and trying to smile. “Look, McCain, we’re going to have to go with him,” Eaton says. “He’s not going to be the best we’ve ever had, but we’re only looking at one term.” She brightens. “But I’m very pleased on the life issue, except for stem-cell. I feel more secure with him choosing judges.”
Smith, at the Illinois Family Institute, points to a few more positives: Yes, McCain is a states’-rights guy when it comes to sticky issues such as defining life or regulating marriage, but “he’s a fiscal conservative, and he’s pretty good on the life issue — NARAL ranks him as zero.”
NARAL ranks Obama 100 percent.
Some on the Christian right are now saying the president they’d prefer is Alan Keyes, the conservative Republican Obama trounced in the Illinois senatorial race in 2004. Keyes is black (so there), and he’s the chairman of RenewAmerica, which he calls a community of “Americans determined to make our nation worthy again of the gifts we have received from Providence.” In a March 21 post on RenewAmerica.us, Tom Hoefling — national political director of America’s Revival: Alan Keyes for President — called Obama “a counterfeit Alan Keyes plagiarizing the language of liberty and equality for socialism.” Examples? “Barack Obama is cribbing from the founding documents of this republic … He even borrows from the Bible … He speaks of ‘we the people’ . . . ‘he steals the constitutional theme of ‘a more perfect unity’ . . . and, in between, he spouts classic Marxist class warfare rhetoric.”
On March 26, a post from Grant Swank on RenewAmerica.us summarized the deepest fear of Christians on the right: “The Bible prohibits killing womb babies and condoning homosexual active lifestyles . . . Therefore, evangelicals had better get out and vote for McCain whether they are magnetized to him or not, for if the Dems get in America goes pagan.”
Other posts rant against “cultural affirmative action” and Obama’s “ties to racism and anti-Americanism.” On March 24, Sher Zieve notes that “the extremist hate group New Black Panther Party — led by Malik Zulu Shabbazz — has endorsed Obama for president” and ends, “Like it or not, we are judged by the company we keep and the ideologies we support — either overtly or covertly. With that in mind, presidential candidate Obama just gets scarier and scarier each and every day.”
Talk of race is a lot more strident online than it is in real time, where the subject is addressed with exquisite delicacy. One conservative Christian, for example — a lawyer who grew up southern Illinois — insists that Obama’s race doesn’t bother him, but he’s afraid that other world leaders will never negotiate with a black man. Still, the Rev. Donald Bailey, senior pastor of Shiloh African Methodist Episcopal Church in East St. Louis, is taken aback by the racial undercurrent to the attacks on Obama — and finds the discussion of Wright especially mind-boggling: “He can’t control what his pastor says! It has nothing to do with being president. I’m praying for him. With this election, racism again has been uncovered, and it’s alive and well. I thought we had made up some ground, but it’s like we haven’t even begun. “You are looking at an African-American male who is very intelligent and very capable,” Bailey says. “Compare him to what we have in the White House right now, and it’s not even a fair race — but they are deathly afraid of him. I don’t think it’s about abortion. I don’t think it’s about the health-care plan. It’s who he is and what he represents, and it scares them to death: You can see it in their eyes.”
He sighs heavily. “We have people who are voting for the very first time, record turnout. That’s good news, but it’s being tainted by all the pettiness and manipulation and negative talk. The Republicans are on the sidelines continuing to bash Obama. They’ve got their candidate, but they just continue to show their hatred toward this man, Obama Obama Obama, every single day. Hillary Clinton lied to all of America, but it doesn’t matter — Obama is still the devil.”
A resident of Waterloo, Ill., Jeannette Cooperman is a freelance writer with a Ph.D. in American studies. She writes about religion and culture for the National Catholic Reporter and other publications.