Why I Think Sen. Obama Helped the Right

Senator Barack Obama gave a speech and there is a lot of reaction in the blogosphere. In the speech, he said,

“At worst, some liberals dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word “Christian” describes one’s political opponents, not people of faith.”

Atrios writes,

If you think it’s important to court evangelicals, then court them. If, on the other hand, you think it’s important to confirm and embrace the false idea that Democrats are hostile to religion in order to set yourself apart, then continue doing what you’re doing. It won’t help the Democrats, and it probably won’t even help you, but whatever makes you happy.

David Sirota says Obama is “Reinforcing Dishonest Storylines”,

One of the most infuriating behaviors among some Democrats these days is their willingness to create fake straw men that undermine progressives and reinforce false narratives about the Democratic Party?
… Obama, of course, is trying to portray himself as having the courage to stand up against these supposed Democrats that constitute the “we” in his rhetoric – the “we” that supposedly make this mistake of “fail[ing] to acknowledge the power of faith.” Yet, again, he doesn’t offer any names to tell us who constitutes the “we.” Why? Because there are none.

[Update – More at the end of the post]
I think it is important that we get the point here, so I’m going to keep this going. I think the point is about understanding the Right’s long-term strategic narratives, what they are, how they work, and how it harms us. We all need to understand the battle we are in, and learn how to all aim at our targets instead of at each other.

Sure, some Democrats and liberals are intolerant, hate religion, whatever (same with some Republicans). My point is that is not relevant to what is going on here. You can find examples of anything in any group. This wouldn’t matter except that the Republicans are currently engaged in a larger battle they call the “culture war,” with a larger, long-term agenda. They are using this particular argument – saying that liberals hate religion – as part of that war, to turn Americans against each other, divide and conquer.
It’s not about truth or details or who is really right or wrong, it is a cold calculation about a selected demographic and a strategic message designed (and tested, etc.) to sway that demographic, period. It’s not about facts, it’s about a long-term effort to move a target group into their column. This is marketing — you decide you want to target a group, you learn the demographics of the group, you learn what is important to them, you learn their “language,” you craft a message that generates an emotional response, you test and refine it, and you roll it out.
They might tell a different targeted demographic THE OPPOSITE of what they tell this one, if they calculate that doing so over time moves THAT demographic into their column. Like I said, it is a cold calculation, not about facts or right or wrong, but about getting a job done.
You have a shampoo for dry hair, and you have another one for damaged hair. Inside the bottle is the SAME STUFF but you are targeting different groups by addressi
This particular strategic narrative is a drumbeat that has been going on for a long time with almost no response, and the result is that “conventional wisdom” forms around the core of their argument. They are telling religious people a big lie that Democrats and liberals IN GENERAL hate them, all of them, and therefore Christians and religious people need to vote for Republicans as the way to defend themselves and their religion from these attacks and insults and mockery.
Sen. Obama, by agreeing the way he did with the core conventional wisdom, saying yes liberals DO that, advances that narrative and provides cover for them to continue it. He didn’t need to do that to make his point, and doing that undermined his point. Though the speech sounds like it is trying to bring people together, by reinforcing the core idea that Democrats and liberals hate Christians, he is actually helping advance the right’s campaign to set Americans against each other.
THIS is why the Right goes to such lengths to do things like the whole “war on Christmas” campaign and that Cupertino, California lawsuit that falsely claimed the school district tried to ” Ban the Declaration of Independence because it mentions God.” Those are just lies, too. They put a lot of money and resources into efforts like that. It is a way to sway a targeted demographic. Nothing more.
If prominent Democrats publicly publicly agree that the Cupertino school system tried to ban the Declaration, or that there is a War on Christmas, doesn’t it help them advance their case? So why is Senator Obama agreeing that liberals hate religion?
More posts from others: Matt Stoller,

Thank you, Obama, for taking on this critical yet vulnerable stereotype, and reinforcing it with moral security measures.

Chris Bowers,

So thanks Senator Obama, for reifying this Republican-driven talking point about Democrats. Now almost everyone will think that Democrats are hostile to people of faith. Well done. Your mentor, Joe Lieberman, would be proud.


The greatest victory of the radical right wing has been to train Democratic politicians to disrespect, mischaracterize and run against their base in the progressive movement.

The Carpetbagger Report,

Who are these inauthentic religious Dems? Who are these rigid secularists who want a religion-free public square? As far as I can tell, this more closely resembles GOP talking points than reality.

The Agonist,

See, now, this is a Lieberman moment. Because what Obama is doing is using Republican talking points about Democrats and religion to criticize his own party.

Ezra Klein,

Sigh. What’s Obama doing? I’ll say that I’ve seen disappointingly little liberal leadership from the guy, though I’ve seen plenty of soaring rhetoric and powerful charisma.

Michelle Goldnerg at Huffngton Post

Unfortunately, Obama’s rhetoric ends up reinforcing Republic myths about liberal Godlessness instead of challenging them.
[. . .] The religious right offers people a narrative arc, not just about their own lives, but also about America’s decline and imminent resurrection. Democrats need a mobilizing vision as well, one that speaks to the despair that underlies so much of our politics.
Obama recognizes this, but he errs in taking Republican propaganda as fact, or, to put it in Lakoff’s terms, in accepting the GOP frame. He perpetuates the fantasy that there really is a liberal war on faith.

4 thoughts on “Why I Think Sen. Obama Helped the Right

  1. You’re exactly right, Dave. Obama fell for the propaganda hook, line and sinker, and he’s doing and saying exactly the wrong things. The “culture wars” Evangelicals are a small minority of Christian denominations who actually exist and consider all other Christians the Spawn of the Devil. The neocons didn’t make them up, but are exploiting them. The propaganda is that they represent ALL “real” Christians, and that God is essentially a Republican.
    Meanwhile the zillions of Christians in the other denominations, including most Evangelicals, have been doing their best to oppose this image all along, completely ignored by the media. Remember those “God is not a Republican” billboards? Since the members of these other Christian faiths on the whole believe in being modest, even humble about their religious beliefs, and their religious values tend to be pretty much the opposite of those of the “culture war” Christians, on the whole the Republicans have gotten away with this. I’ve been posting about this and commenting on it for a long time, saying that the Democratic party has been ignoring a natural ally — which it has. But Obama’s going about this entirely the wrong way.

  2. Obama was addressing a crowd of religious lefties. It’s pretty clear in that context, an underlying assumption is that the left is not hostile to religion. Once his statements are taken out of that context, though, it becomes troublesome.
    On the other hand, I will say that when I was a kid, I was offended at having to say “under God.” And yes, I definitely felt coerced, because I mouthed it so others wouldn’t find out.

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