Columnists > Voices

Two left feet

Campaign 2008 | It takes more than a few dance lessons to waltz with evangelicals

Issue: "Reinventing Hillary," Nov. 17, 2007

Because I grew up in a culture where social dancing was not just frowned upon, but altogether forbidden, I still have two left feet. Much to my wife's consternation, there's just no music in the whole wide world with the capacity for putting a spring in my step and rhythm in my soul. I devoutly wish it were otherwise.

My incompetence that way comes to my mind every time (and it's been fairly often recently) I hear another liberal politician indicate that he or she is right on the edge of being able to talk like an evangelical. I watch and I listen and I hope. And then, again and again, I have to say to them, just like my wife says to me, "You just don't get it, do you?"

And neither do the media reporting all these supposed conversions.

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That was certainly true just last month when Barack Obama was said to have "connected" at a big evangelical church in Greenville, S.C. "We can create a kingdom right here on earth," Obama promised a crowd reported to have been in excess of 4,000-and that gloriously hopeful pledge by the Democratic senator from Illinois was flashed around the country as evidence that maybe the religious right had finally met its match. Obama, the mainstream media wanted us all to know, could speak religious-ese with the best of them. As if to prove their point, a few reporters even capitalized the word "Kingdom" in their stories, demonstrating what startling and subtle new theological insights Obama and some of his colleagues had mastered.

Not a bit better was John Edwards' much publicized comment to the Associated Press in 2004, when he whined that Republicans were acting as if only they had any interest in religion. "My faith is very important to me," he stressed-hacking away at his believability with every phrase he then added. "John Kerry and I-the two of us-talk about our faith, with each other. Our faith is important to us, and it's always been important to us-and people should know that." For some reason, the media were impressed.

As noted in WORLD's cover story this week, Democrat Hillary Clinton is at least able to discuss some biblical themes, some theological concepts, and some theological thinkers in specific and often accurate terms. She was even quoted by Newsweek (way back in 1994) as charging that her own United Methodist denomination "for a period of time became too socially concerned, too involved in the social gospel, and didn't pay enough attention to questions of personal salvation and individual faith." That took some discernment.

But for most of these politicians-and very often for their Republican counterparts as well-our skepticism about their sincerity is rooted only partly in the deftness with which they can or can't express themselves on these matters. Our skepticism stems mainly from what we know about who shaped these people's spiritual awareness. Apples don't fall far from their trees.

For evangelicalism historically is not just a series of individual beliefs. Historically, over the last couple of generations, you typically became an evangelical by joining hundreds of thousands of other people in deliberately choosing to leave the mainline denominations because of their liberalism.

It would be hard, then, to find two denominations that more vividly characterize the anti-evangelical spirit that became repulsive to such hard-core evangelicals than the United Church of Christ (Barack Obama's denomination) and the United Methodist Church (John Edwards and Hillary Clinton's denomination). Through and through, both the UCC and the UMC have been stalwarts of everything that is liberal-both theologically and socially.

That's why it's so hard for prominent disciples of the UCC, the UMC, and other mainline denominations to connect with an evangelical political base. It isn't just that there is a handful of key words missing from their vocabulary. It isn't that they just need to be coached about a few details of the evangelical lingo and accent. It's a whole different way of perceiving God and His revelation. It is, in fact, a different language and a different worldview.

I'll be the first to concede that the pattern I've just sketched is changing-and that the coming generation of evangelicals may well be not as skeptical of or resistant to those bearing such liberal credentials. They'll be more accepting because they will have forgotten their own specific history.

For right now, though, Obama, Edwards, Clinton, and a few of the others all look about as clumsy in an evangelical church as I do on a dance floor.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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