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Tony Campolo’s Remorse over Support for ObamaConnor EwingFebruary 16, 2010
A common explanation for President Obama’s deflated poll numbers and the diminishing support for his legislative agenda is buyers’ remorse. According to this diagnosis, many who supported Obama during his campaign are now dissatisfied and regret their support. While this appraisal may work for run-of-the-mill voters, what about the Obama vendors – those individuals who hit the campaign trail throughout 2008 to convince voters to support him?
Late last month, Tony Campolo, leader of the “Red Letter Christians” movement and professor emeritus at Eastern University, indicated possible vendors’ remorse. Reflecting on the health care reform saga, Campolo expressed regret that the President and Congressional Democrats haven’t taken the opportunity to promote alternatives to abortions, especially with respect to the economically disadvantaged.
Campolo is not merely a prominent evangelical who just happened to support Obama’s run for the presidency. Rather, he was a dedicated supporter who actively promoted Obama to other evangelical Christians. Campolo’s support was not limited to just Obama. With a handful of other progressive evangelical leaders, he served on the Democratic Party’s platform committee, helping express the party’s policy positions and core convictions.
As a committee member, Campolo strove to moderate the Democrats’ language, if not its policy, on abortion. Campolo’s efforts were crucial to securing language that expressed support for women who choose to carry their pregnancies to term as well as support for alternatives to abortion for low-income women. Such alternatives, which are a staple of the progressive Christian’s legislative wish-list, have been summarized by Campolo as follows: “Here’s a woman, let’s say, who works at a super market with no way to pay for a hospital if she gets pregnant. Whether she should or shouldn’t be pregnant is not our place to say. What we want for her, if she doesn’t want to have an abortion, is for the law to guarantee two weeks off to deliver the baby. Secondly we need to be able to say that woman will have complete medical coverage. Also, we’re going to have to raise the minimum wage. Not a great deal, but a little more than what they’re getting now. And we need to be able to provide some degree of daycare for the child born to the single mother.”
While religious voters on the left applauded the Democrats move, the response from conservative Christians was tepid at best. For, while reducing the number of abortions is a goal most pro-lifers would endorse, it is widely viewed as ceding the more fundamental arguments over the legality of, restrictions on, and access to abortion. Indeed, although Campolo’s efforts were successful, the 2008 Democratic platform still affirms the party’s support for the rights created by Roe v. Wade and even removed its previous commitment to make abortions “safe, legal, and rare.”
Those who view the change to the Democrats’ platform as inconsequential and a naked play for evangelical votes point to comments made by Campolo and fellow evangelical leader Joel Hunter, pastor of Orlando’s Northland Church and board member of the National Association of Evangelicals. Campolo was explicit with his view: “If we are going to win over evangelicals, language that speaks to abortion reduction will be very necessary.” Hunter gave a slightly more nuanced, though equally transparent, statement. “Voters that this will win over are those that are looking for an excuse to vote for Obama,” he admitted. “They just needed one signal that, if I vote for him, more babies can be saved than if we keep wrangling over whether Roe v. Wade is going to be overturned.”
Judging by the election results, the efforts of progressive evangelicals seem to have paid off for Obama and the Democrats. Obama received 26% of the “born-again” vote and 53% of the religious vote, compared to John Kerry’s 21% and 48%, respectively, in 2004.
At the time, Campolo justified his efforts by invoking public opinion. “Fifty-one percent of Americans consider themselves pro-choice,” he explained. “This being the case, we are looking for common ground. We’re saying, ‘OK, if we can’t have our way 100 percent, can we at least come together recognizing…that abortions need to be reduced?’” While the statistic he cited when he made this comment may have been accurate, the past year has seen some shift in public sentiment on abortion. According to a Gallup poll released six months after the election, for the first time in the history of Gallup’s asking the question “a majority of U.S. adults have identified themselves as pro-life.” It is unclear whether this change will precipitate a change of course for Campolo and his progressive Christian brethren.
The President’s failure to make good on his campaign promises has left Campolo wondering what would have happened if now Secretary of State Clinton had beaten Obama in the Democratic primary. “We really feel that Hillary Clinton was more committed to a pro-life position by far than Obama,” Campolo lamented. “We saw it, as she sees it, that something is very, very wrong.” Regardless of whether Campolo’s interpretation of Clinton’s views on abortion is correct, the fact remains that he is unhappy with the President.
The question of whether Campolo regrets his support for the President is one only he can answer. However, it can be said with reasonable confidence that his expectations for President Obama have yet to be met. “What we are waiting for Barack Obama to say is that this is a moral issue, and a matter of conscience,” he said at the height of the campaign. One year into the Obama presidency, Campolo continues to wait.
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