Religion and the 2008 election: A conversation with Paul Kengor, Fred Barnes and Michael Medved

Currently, here at Grove City College, the Center for Vision and Values is hosting our annual conference. Titled, “Church and State: 2008 – A history of church-state relations and and a look at where the values voter will turn in 2008,” the schedule is filled with scholarly papers regarding church-state relations with special emphasis on how these issues impact politics and policy.

Earlier this evening, I attended a panel discussion that was billed as an interview of the Beltway Boys (Fred Barnes and Mort Kondracke) with Center Director, Paul Kengor as host. Unfortunately, Mort Kondracke could not attend due to some health concerns. Filling in ably was conservative talk show host, Michael Medved, who earlier in the day broadcast live from the atrium of our academic building, not far from my office.

In fact, it was Medved who provided some of the more newsworthy comments of the evening. For instance, he disclosed the rumor that Barack Obama is looking at New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg as a running mate. Mayor Bloomberg has switched his party affiliation to Independent from Republican (which was a switch from an earlier Democratic affiliation). This “fusion ticket” might be quite appealing to the middle.  Medved also predicted that Joe Lieberman, while a great friend of John McCain, would not take the Veep spot, even if offered.

Much of the conversation focused on how the religious vote might impact the election. Each candidate was examined in this regard. Specifically, Hillary Clinton is well known to occupy an Evangelical left position on most issues (which we have covered here in the past), McCain has Episcopal roots but has attended a Baptist church for quite awhile up to the present. Regarding social issues, all panelists agreed that McCain would chose conservative judges favorable to social and religious conservatives. This fact will help consolidate religious conservatives behind McCain. However, much conversation focused on Barack Obama’s political problems with his pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

Both Barnes and Medved believe that this issue will dog Obama into the general election should he be the Democratic nominee. Listening to a cursory review of Wright’s actions and positions, I believe they are right. Obama has said his Christianity has been directly influenced by Rev. Wright. Obama is not unaware of his statements and activities. For instance, as Medved noted, Wright has lauded Louis Farrakhan and even traveled with him to meet with Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi when Gadhafi was engaged in terrorism. This is the mentor and church Obama chose to join just 4 years after the Libyan trip and then remained for 20 years, calling Rev. Wright his spiritual advisor.  Medved predicted an Obama candidacy could move the Jewish vote toward the Republicans for the first time in decades.

For political junkies, it was a intriguing evening provided by three astute social conservatives.    

36 thoughts on “Religion and the 2008 election: A conversation with Paul Kengor, Fred Barnes and Michael Medved”

  1. In all fairness Drowssap — you also took his words a bit out of context – what he said is:

    My job this morning is to be so persuasive…that a light will shine through that window, a beam of light will come down upon you, you will experience an epiphany, and you will suddenly realize that you must go to the polls and vote for Barack.

    I think he was speaking to a group at Dartmouth. I’m also not convinced that there isn’t a good deal of tongue-in-cheekness in his remarks 🙂

    I’m not saying I’ve been happy by all of his remarks, but I do know how easy it is for such things to be taken out of context when you are in the public spotlight. I’m also sure he’s made mistakes in his speeches, and I’m sure he’ll make more. Whether he’s creepy or not is up for debate. At least he’s no Dan Quayle 😉

  2. jayhuck

    There are liberals everywhere, but clearly more live on the coasts. The problem Obama has is…

    According to his supporters

    Rev Wright was taken out of context

    Michelle Obama’s statement that she has never proud of America was taken out of context

    When Obama called his grandmother a “typical white person” his supporters claim that’s out of context.

    When Obama said that Middle American’s are bitter and they cling to guns and religion that’s out of context.

    That will work (sort of) during a Dem primary because most liberals agree with those statements in ANY context. But in the general election that won’t wash.

    To me personally his creepiest statements are those that compare his campaign to a religious awakening.

    “… a light will shine through that window, a beam of light will come down upon you, you will experience an epiphany … and you will suddenly realize that you must go to the polls and vote for Obama”

    My creep-o-meter goes to 11 on that one.

  3. Drowssap –

    No, I mean right out of the liberal playbook that people from the midwest wouldn’t trust a man just because he’s black. He’s implying that people in flyover country are backwards or racist or whatever. The only reason I semi-forgive him for it is because of the laughter at the end of it. If there was some humor in it I cut him some slack.

    Are you assuming there are no liberals in the midwest? I did not get the sense that he was actually saying people were backwards – and I’m from the Midwest 🙂 I truly think his message was misinterpreted and used by his opponents to mean something more offensive than was its intent.

  4. Right On!

    From the original story:

    Obama said this in 1995

    “I am surprised at how many elected officials–even the good ones–spend so much time talking about the mechanics of politics and not matters of substance.”

    Kind of funny considering he said this in Jan 2008…

    “… a light will shine through that window, a beam of light will come down upon you, you will experience an epiphany … and you will suddenly realize that you must go to the polls and vote for Obama”

    That was a regular part of his campaign speech according to Newsweek magazine

    “the senator was fond of telling audiences that “at some point in the evening, a light is going to shine down and you will have an epiphany and you’ll say, ‘I have to vote for Barack.”

    Was that the substance he felt was lacking back in 1995?

  5. And now this…

    Obama marched in and helped organize Farrakhan’s Million Man March back in 1995.

    Might be better links but I heard about this, googled and this is what came up.


    Next question: Has Obama ever met with Farrakhan? That might explain why Farrakhan endorsed him so heartily.

  6. Obama’s problem is that he’s still a bit of an unknown. So most of his appeal is based on the personal, on charisma.

    While McCain or Clinton can say something truly stupid, people are familiar with their positions and eventually they let that single moment pass as the preponderance of their experience with the candidate outweighs the incidental.

    But there is no preponderance with Obama. So any single gaffe can hurt him badly. There isn’t enough counterbalance of history.

  7. jayhuck – The context means to me that he does not blame racism for his poorer showing in PA and Ohio. But his view of small town Midwest as bitter and disillusioned people clinging to their Bibles and guns still comes through. As I understand it he is explaining why he is not doing better than Hillary in those places. Perhaps these folks are waiting for some specifics about how he might address their issues. All he is offering on the stump is generalities.

  8. But on this I cut him no slack.

    On Hillary’s comments…

    “She knows better. Shame on her. Shame on her,”

    How dare Hillary attack Obama during the Democrat primary.


    I watched the video from Drudge and he gets angry. The guy needs to realize he is in a particularly prissy democrat primary. Didn’t he watch the GOP nearly tear itself apart over McCain? WUSS!!!

    /btw if you watch the video the gloves are off, he is in full, 100% attack mode, his Mother Theresa halo is gone

  9. jayhuck

    No, I mean right out of the liberal playbook that people from the midwest wouldn’t trust a man just because he’s black. He’s implying that people in flyover country are backwards or racist or whatever. The only reason I semi-forgive him for it is because of the laughter at the end of it. If there was some humor in it I cut him some slack.

  10. Drowssap,

    Um, here’s what was said before that video started: Is it right out of the Conservative playbook to post links to things that may be taken out of context in order to sway people? – Actually, now that I think about it, perhaps we do too much of that on both sides – Anway…..

    “OBAMA: So, it depends on where you are, but I think it’s fair to say that the places where we are going to have to do the most work are the places where people feel most cynical about government. The people are mis-appre…I think they’re misunderstanding why the demographics in our, in this contest have broken out as they are. Because everybody just ascribes it to ‘white working-class don’t wanna work — don’t wanna vote for the black guy.’ That’s…there were intimations of that in an article in the Sunday New York Times today – kind of implies that it’s sort of a race thing. Here’s how it is: in a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long, and they feel so betrayed by government, and when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then a part of them just doesn’t buy it. And when it’s delivered by — it’s true that when it’s delivered by a 46-year-old black man named Barack Obama (laugher), then that adds another layer of skepticism (laughter).”

  11. DOH!

    Barack implies that people from the midwest don’t trust him because he’s black.

    Right out of the liberal playbook.

  12. Drowssap –

    Some controversial and repudiated research – probably nothing worth getting into right now because it could completely derail the conversation 🙂

  13. jayhuck

    Actually I don’t even know who Stanley Kurtz is other than he works for National Review. What’s wrong with him?

  14. LOL. Hillary said:

    People embrace faith not because they are materially poor, but because they are spiritually rich.

    Question: if she embraces faith because she’s already spiritually rich, what then is her need for the “Savior” part of the religion she’s embraced?

  15. Drowssap –

    Stanley Kurtz??? I always appreciate your words Drowssap, but Stanley Kurtz and his work has been repudiated by so many scholars at this point it surprises me anyone actually still takes him seriously.

  16. This response by Stanley Kurtz is sweet.

    What’s the Matter With Chicago?

    Why are Republicans having such a tough time winning over voters in big cities and college towns? Fundamentally, it’s a question of bitterness. You go into some of these university towns in Massachusetts, and like a lot of college towns in New England, the culture’s been gone now for 25 years, and nothing’s replaced it. And they fell through the Bok administration and the Rudenstine administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow the culture in our universities is going to regenerate, but it has not. So it’s not surprising then that as they graduate and move to big cities they get bitter. They cling to regulations, or tax schemes designed to fund government programs and unaffordable entitlements as a substitute for the decent culture they were never able to find at college.

  17. Drowssap –

    Even though I think Obama made a mistake and even though people will use his words against him, I still don’t think you’re going to stop his momentum – he is just too well liked 🙂 But I’m biased 🙂

  18. Obama made a mistake in talking to public audience as if he were talking to his strategists. It reflects poorly on his most valued capital: credibility. He should have chosen his words more perceptively. I mean, how can a believer and a presidential hopeful talk about voters ‘clinging to religion’? That’s a bloop for a candidate who gained a lot from his oratorical skills.

  19. Eddy

    I see what you are saying, and there are ways to interpret his statement in a not completely offensive way. But oh man… it doesn’t matter. The reaction was instant and bad.

    “Political insiders differed on whether Obama’s comments, which came to light Friday, would become a full-blown political disaster that could prompt party leaders to try to steer the nomination to Clinton even though Obama has more pledged delegates. ”

    “At a campaign rally in Wilson, N.C., former state Democratic Party chairman and current Clinton adviser Tom Hendrickson said rural voters don’t need “liberal elites” telling them what to believe.”

    When Democrat politicians start badmouthing liberal elites during a Dem primary, you can bet this one is big trouble.

  20. Warren

    Barack Obama, cultural anthropologist to the stars.

    Oh man, you nailed it. I think I might have to use your analogy.

  21. Hillary’s response:

    “The people of faith I know don’t ‘cling’ to religion because they’re bitter. People embrace faith not because they are materially poor, but because they are spiritually rich,”

    “People don’t need a president who looks down on them,” she said. “They need a president who stands up for them.”

    You go girl! 😎

  22. Evan,

    Thanks for the link 🙂 I support Obama, but am upset by what he said –

    I appreciated the following specific backpedaling remarks though and the comments from Senator Bayh:

    “The truth is that these traditions that are passed on from generation to generation, those are important. That’s what sustains us. But what is absolutely true is that people don’t feel like they are being listened to.

    “And so they pray and they count on each other and they count on their families. You know this in your own lives, and what we need is a government that is actually paying attention. Government that is fighting for working people day in and day out making sure that we are trying to allow them to live out the American dream.”

    ……One of Clinton’s staunchest supporters, Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., acknowledged there was some truth in Obama’s remarks. But Republicans would use them against him anyway, Bayh said.

    “We do have economic hard times, and that does lead to a frustration and some justifiable anger, it’s true,” Bayh told reporters after introducing Clinton in Indianapolis. “But I think you’re on dangerous ground when you morph that into suggesting that people’s cultural values whether it’s religion or hunting and fishing or concern about trade are premised solely upon those kinds of anxieties and don’t have a legitimate foundation independent of that.”

  23. I think Obama comes off like Margaret Mead talking about tribal peoples. He is explaining small town folk to San Francisco donors and trying to help them understand the natives of the fly-over territories.

    He has to explain to the elites how small town people with their small minds and small visions still cling to outdated stuff, like religion and guns and are still seething after 25 years because their small jobs went away.

    Barack Obama, cultural anthropologist to the stars.

  24. Drowssap–

    The more I read the statement by Obama that you reacted against, the more I appreciate it. First, I think the pairing of guns and religion was not intentional. It seems to be more of a speaking rhythym thing. His syllables and phrase lengths grow throughout the sentence. (I’ve tried switching the phrasing around and, it seems, no matter where you put either ‘guns’ or ‘religion’, the positioning tends to add emphasis to the words.)

    And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

    I appreciate the point he’s making. When people are oppressed, it’s a natural tendency to medicate their frustrations through rallying. His listing of the current common rallying points or avenues seems accurate.

    Don’t mess with my right to bear arms. Viewed as one of the original freedoms, this issue gets charged with appeals to the frontier and pioneering spirit.

    Religion: Another of the original freedoms.

    Immigrants: They’re getting my pie. Whether through government assistance programs or through taking the available jobs. (Companies hiring immigrants at a far lower pay rate than we deem livable.)

    Anti-trade: Why are we buying that product from overseas when we could produce it here and provide me a job?

    I’m thinking this would just about sum up the conversations you’d overhear in bars and diners in those economically oppressed areas. Someone’s messing with my American Dream. First, I want to protect those rights and freedoms that I do currently possess and second, I want my fair share of the dream.

  25. Drudge? You ARE kidding, right? 🙂 It might play well on Drudge Drowssap, but, here’s some balancing rhetoric:

    “Obama made a problematic judgment call in trying to explain working class culture to a much wealthier audience. He described blue collar Pennsylvanians with a series of what in the eyes of creamy Californians might be considered pure negatives: guns, clinging to religion, antipathy, xenophobia.

    I’m not sure this is what at least this lot of Californians needed to hear about Pennsylvanians. Such phrases can reinforce negative stereotypes among Californians, who are a people in a state already surfeited with a smug sense of superiority and, as an ironic consequence, a parochialism and insularity at odds with the innovation, prosperity and openness for which California is rightly known. (Of course, this is a generalization, and as such does not fit everyone; but as a state characteristic I stand by it.) Californians might be better served by hearing that Pennsylvanians have a strong sense of their place in American history, for here California is wanting. California needs to hear that other Americans have gone through hard times and survived, humor intact. Since Barack Obama sees himself as the candidate best able to unify the country, these are the messages he needs to carry and his frank words about Pennsylvania may not have translated very clearly.

    To give Obama his due, he spoke about working class Pennsylvanians likely because he had been thinking about them a great deal. And he spoke, as he often does away from large rallies, in a calm, even, matter-of-fact way. Every town hall meeting I’ve observed, from California to Iowa, Nevada to Texas, has showcased Senator Obama’s core decency and high measure of regard for each individual.”

  26. I’m sure everyone has heard Obama’s latest misstatement

    “You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

    So reactionary middle Americans clings to guns and religion? Why did he put those two together? And this guy is a unifier? That statement might play well on NPR, but not in a U.S. presidential election. Oh man… Obama must be a Republican plant. He’s clearly trying to throw the election for McCain. 😎

    Heck, if he keeps it up Hillary might have a shot.

    Whatever happens, this is the most entertaining presidential race ever.

  27. Eddy

    I’d want to see the camera’s panning Obama as the offensive words are spoken to see if he’s nodding an “Amen” or sitting stoicly silent.

    Oh man, you and me both. I keep waiting for the red, flashing siren to show up on Drudge with a link to the video. 😎

  28. Evan,

    It’s refreshing to read your take on American politics. It is one of the strangest little dances. At the moment, both Clinton and Obama will result to almost anything that casts any negative light on the other. When possible they will construct mountains from molehills…and then, once the party has decided on one candidate, they’ll spend weeks telling us how those mountains were really just molehills and that it’s all a part of the game.

    We profess to be a thinking people who carefully choose our candidates but, so many times, it comes down to just one or two issues that we agree with a candidate on (for the moderately informed) or simply name recognition for the majority. Many feel that our current president wouldn’t have gotten elected the first time (election? judgement call? whatever.) if his last name hadn’t been Bush.


    Good point. Since Obama doesn’t have a substantial record, it is somewhat natural to judge him by the company he keeps. Had his pastor/mentor’s comments been less radical, they probably wouldn’t have gone there. But, he was ‘preachifying’ and went a bit overboard. LOL. I’d want to see the camera’s panning Obama as the offensive words are spoken to see if he’s nodding an “Amen” or sitting stoicly silent. (Scarier to me wouldn’t be the issue of whether Obama shares his pastor’s views, but rather, does he hear clearly enough to know when a powerful and persuasive statement has crossed the line into overstatement and offensiveness.)

  29. Evan

    I thought each person was to be judged for their own deeds.

    That’s the specific problem that Obama has. He hasn’t had a significant political or private sector career yet. We are forced to judge him by the company he keeps more than we otherwise would.

    The other thing is that if a white politician was strongly associated with the white equivalent of Reverend Wright he wouldn’t have a political career at any level.

  30. Warren,

    On the other hand, it’s tricky to make decisions based on a scant amount of information. Was Obama aware of all his future mentor’s past activities and trips? He should answer this question and also put some reasons forward for why he finally decided to trust that man for whatever mentorship he received from him. It may have nothing to do with the guy’s extremist views. I’ve read Obama already distanced himself from Wright’s views, although he did not disown him.

    However, it would be a loss of good public debate to have nominations clinched on indirect negative issues. It would be like challenging Hillary Clinton’s claim that she learned a lot from her presence in the White House because she failed to notice something as basic as her husband’s ongoing mischief within the precincts. It’s this sort of questions that won’t say much about the real capacity of a presidential hopeful. We know people tend to judge public office candidates according to standards against which they wouldn’t judge themselves (if they ran for the job).

  31. Evan – These are points which are valid to consider. Why the connection to Wright is of interest probably relates to the distrust we feel in public officials. We hear them say one thing but we worry they will do another when in office.

    I suspect in Chicago there are many churches one could attend with the same theology as Wright’s church but Obama chose to join and stay in that one for 20 years. If my pastor cozied up to terrorists, I would be gone.

    It may or may not say anything about what Obama would do, but in situations where certainty cannot be guaranteed, people will use whatever information is available to make attributions.

  32. As a European citizen, I’m a bit surprised that people from the US judge Obama for his mentor’s deeds. I thought each person was to be judged for their own deeds. It’s one thing when a political advisor employed by your campaign messes up and produces some embarassment to the candidate and quite another when someone’s ‘spiritual advisor’ does something wrong. The latter shouldn’t be part of the political game. In all fairness, it doesn’t necessarily throw a shadow of doubt over each and every thing that spiritual mentor did. Did Obama support those views that put Rev. Wright in the spotlight? — that’s the only relevant question here. If not, I don’t see any major problem here. It’s not like Obama cheated on his wife or something. If you try to put a candidate down with indirect stuff like that it can backlash and he can emerge victorious…

    From my point of view, people from your country would stand to gain more from judging candidates based on their proposed policies and personal ability to do the presidential job. Negative campaigning is a two-edged sword. Just a few words on the issue.

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