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Religion and the Election: What Do We Think We Know?

10/20/2008 7:00 PM 34"101
Dr. Shaun Casey, Wesley Theological Seminary,; National Evangelical Coordinator for the Barack Obama Campaign; Dr. Alan Wolfe, SM '56, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, Boston College

Description: The 2008 U.S. Presidential election was in many ways a watershed event, including the impact of religion on candidates and voters.

Shaun Casey finds some parallels to 2008 in 1960, when John F. Kennedy eventually overcame enough Protestant resistance to become the first Roman Catholic president _ just as Obama campaigned to overcome American racism and become the first African"American president. Kennedy applied a "technical rationality to most problems," says Casey, so he hired staffers to help him present his faith in an unthreatening way. Obama also put together a staff to deal with such "religion problems" as Reverend Wright, the notion that he was a "Manchurian Meccan candidate," or even worse, "a secular Harvard Law School educator who's really an atheist."

Alan Wolfeobserves that in the 1960 election, people were tired of eight years of Republican power, and found a young Democratic challenger appealing. The candidate with the real religion problem then was Richard Nixon, who "essentially had to hide his religion: he was Quaker." Says Wolfe, "What a horrible embarrassment" for a party that "believes in aggressive military posture." What Wolfe finds of greater interest is the emergence, after the '60s, of "the religious litmus test." He hypothesizes that Jimmy Carter introduced the concept, offering himself up as a man of God in whom a post"Watergate era America could trust. One of the Democrats' more "admirable" candidates thus "opened the Pandora's box for Republicans."

Catching up to current times, Wolfe debunks Karl Rove's mystique as master manipulator of the religious right, claiming that Bush actually lost the 2000 election, and that Rove was "simply lucky" in 2004. McCain deployed the Rove strategy in 2008, and "it's been a disaster for him" Also, McCain is simply "awkward speaking about religionhe's tone deaf." In contrast, "Obama the 'Muslim' is steeped in the Christian language."

Casey believes Rove and George Bush "elevated religious outreach to an art form not seen in American politics," marketing a candidate who was "a specific kind of Christian possibility independent of the reality in that candidate's life." Wolfe thinks conservative Christians gravitate to the Republican Party now because they're "working in big corporationsthey're wealthier." They see themselves as a marginalized minority group. Wolfe says the "real inheritors of the '60s are the Christian right. They're victimized, oppressed, and they're a movement of insurgency."

Both panelists discern a new sensibility emerging in the evangelical movement. Young people don't clothe themselves as much in what Wolfe calls the "highly Calvinistic, punitive approach," and instead embrace openness around such issues as poverty, climate change and genocide. Casey believes this new religious cohort, raised in public schools, has been exposed to ethnic diversity, and interracial and interethnic dating: "They're far more cosmopolitan," he says. They're attracted to Obama, and less likely to oppose things like civil rights and sex education. "A kid in a suburban high school won't get exercised about gay rights; it's more live and let live."

About the Speaker(s): Shaun Casey's research interests include the ethics of war and peace, the role of religion in presidential politics, public theology, the role of the Church in fighting global poverty, and the problem of theodicy as it relates to the Red Sox. He serves as a consultant to the Project on Religion and Post Conflict Reconstruction at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His current projects include writing a book on the role of religion in the 1960 presidential election and offering free advice to candidates running for political office.

Alan Wolfe's most recent books include Return to Greatness: How America Lost Its Sense of Purpose and What it Needs to Do to Recover It (2005), The Transformation of American Religion: How We actually Practice our Faith (2003), and n Intellectual in Public (2003). He is the author or editor of more than 10 other books.

A contributing editor of The New Republic and The Wilson Quarterly, Wolfe writes often for those publications as well as for Commonweal,, The New York Times, Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post, and other magazines and newspapers. He served as an advisor to President Clinton in preparation for his 1995 State of the Union address and has lectured widely at American and European universities.

Wolfe has been the recipient of grants from the Russell Sage Foundation, the Templeton Foundation, and the Lilly Endowment. Casey received his B.A. from Abilene Christian University, his M.Div. from the Harvard Divinity School, an M.P.A. from the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, and a Th.D. from the Harvard Divinity School.

Host(s): Dean for Student Life, The Chaplain to the Institute

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MIT World — special events and lectures

MIT World — special events and lectures

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