On Sunday, Discovery Channel's Ted Koppell returned to his old network home to appear on ABC News This Week. Koppell was on the round table panel in part to promote his fascinating new five part series "The Republic of Capitalism," which airs starting Wed. night at 10pm EST. Also appearing on the panel were Mark Halperin of "Time" magazine, Jonathan Capehart of 'The Washington Post" and Michelle Cottle of 'The New Republic."
Among the topics discussed was Barack Obama's faith-based strategy, specifically his announcement last week that he would continue to support federal funding for social services provided by faith-based organizations. Moreover, in articulating and defending his strong religious identity, Obama delivered what EJ Dionne of the Washington Post called the most important speech by a Democrat about religion since JFK. Indeed, the irony of the 2008 election is that it is the Democrat this time around who is by far the more religiously devout candidate.
While some Culture War cold warriors have decried Obama's decision to continue funding for faith-based organizations, Obama's move makes a lot of sense to me. In fact, perhaps most importantly, Obama has pledged to make sure that faith-based funding is not used selectively as a re-election tool and that organizations would not be able to discriminate in hiring practices, as has been done on both counts under the Bush administration.
Moreover, in the short term, the announcement and speech were very shrewd and effective campaign positioning. As the panelists at ABC News observed, Obama's strategy may soften some of the overwhelming support among Evangelicals that helped carry Bush to wins in 2000 and 2004. If Obama, unlike Gore and Kerry, can capture a Clinton-esque 30% of the Evangelical vote, Obama may be on his way to electoral victory.
But the speech and policy move also makes a lot sense on another level: it makes salient Obama's Christian identity, an important shift given intense Internet rumors circulating that he is a closet Muslim and polls showing that 10% of Americans believe the false accusations.
Below the fold, I have posted the analysis from the panel. You can watch the discussion here.
(Off-camera) He has also been trying to show that he is - trying to show religious and values to voters, that he is one of them as well. And he gave a speech yesterday at the AME convention. Let's hear a little bit of it.
I've talked about faith-based groups and individual responsibility for years. Again, I know some of our friends in the media might think it's some new political positioning, but I say it because I believe it. Because I've always believed it. Because I believe this is the only work that we can do as individuals that this is the work we are called to do as Christians.
(Off-camera) Showing a little sensitivity about the press there, Michele, but it is true that he's been talking about it for several years. He wrote about it in his books. And it seems to be bearing some fruit electoraly so far. He seems to be cutting into the evangelical vote.
MICHELLE COTTLE ("THE NEW REPUBLIC")
I think this is a very shrewd approach for him. I mean, McCain is not beloved by the evangelical base. And all Obama has to do is kind of cut in or kind of soften their fears about voting Democratic. He's meeting with evangelical leaders. He's, you know, announcing that he's going to expand the faith-based initiative. He's going places like Colorado Springs to give these speeches. I think it's an incredibly good move on his part and McCain needs to kind of pay attention and figure out a way to combat this. Right now, he's just ignoring it.
(Off-camera) Well he did start to pay attention last week. I met with Franklin Graham and Billy Graham last Sunday. He's trying to cut into this, Mark, but as Michelle points out, Obama doesn't need to win this group, all he has to do is get his numbers with evangelicals up to the 30% that Bill Clinton got. He's probably going to get elected.
MARK HALPERIN ("TIME")
It's very instructive I think to look at how Obama compares to Kerry and Gore who narrowly lost the White House on different indices. On this one, he talks better, more smoothly, more authoritatively, more authentically about his faith than either of those two guys did. And I think is - it does give him a chance to cut into that vote in states where it matters, in states that are swing states where he can at least make them competitive if not actually win them.
JONATHAN CAPEHART ("THE WASHINGTON POST")
And here's something else that talking about faith does for Senator Obama, it reminds people that he's a Christian. It reminds people that he's not a Muslim. And I'm still amazed that in every poll, you will find above 10% of the people polled believe he's a Muslim. So this has a double duty. It does double duty. He reminds people that he's a person of faith but he also reminds them that he's a Christian.
(Off-camera) Ted, you've been combating this stuff on the internet all year long.
TED KOPPEL (DISCOVERY CHANNEL)
It's an incredible story
(Off-camera) Well it is an incredible story. And you've spent so much time on "Nightline" and now Discovery also looking at issues of race. How big of an issue do you think this will end up being for him in the end, this cluster of issues?
TED KOPPEL (DISCOVERY CHANNEL)
I think in the final analysis, there was a wonderful story, I think it was in "The Washington Post" the other day, about Flag City USA down in Ohio. Where people are exposed to what is the truth, namely, that Obama is Christian, namely, that there is no reason to question his patriotism. But all of these rumors that have come through are connected to the fact that he is an African American. Has made apparently this entire community uneasy about him. And the rumor mill has been far more effective than any ads, any newspaper stories, any television stories. And I think there's just a small but significant fraction of Americans for whom the truth in this instance is...
For starters, the whole idea moves the discussion away from the mutually beneficial seperation of Church and State noted in the constitution, towards the idea that America's majority Christian population need to be appeased.
Second, one of Obama's major problems is that people believe he's a secret Muslim. Is continuing to spend government money on _ALL_ faiths, as required by the constitution, going to endear him to Christians who believe he's not a member of their specific faith?
This isn't good framing, it's bad pandering. By doing this, it merely reinforces the divisive idea that Christians have a privileged position in america, not the unifying idea that a secular government serves ALL of it's citizens best.
It makes sense from a political view, but a practical one? Just once I'd like to see oversight that actually worked. They can't keep prosyletizing out of the military and other (actual) federal services, yet they think they can police the myriad of "charities" (forcing prayer when giving food is not charity, to me), well, color me extremely skeptical. Just wait till some whistleblower complains about a faith-based charity - the religious right will scream and complain and congress (or whoever) will roll over and apologize.
Damn, I'm cynical.