Ronald Reagan, courting the South in 1976, said in Lynchburg, Va., “I don’t think we should have expelled God from the classroom.”
Ever since, Republicans have sought votes in the South and elsewhere by talking about “God, guns and gays.” The winning strategy failed in 2008, though, as Republican John McCain never connected on the Three Gs, despite Sarah Palin.
Now, with President Barack Obama, progressive causes and issues – gay marriage, the environment, a larger federal role in American life – are ascending.
The dismal economy has been a national preoccupation for months, but on his first overseas trip as president, Obama used the bully pulpit to talk up American values – and to encourage international cooperation and good will. He even has a progressive riff for “God, guns and gays.”
God: Obama has been speaking about his Christian faith and Muslim background since the campaign. In Turkey, he reiterated his belief that the United States is not a Christian nation.
Guns: While he was away, Obama sent his Republican Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to deliver the Pentagon budget proposal, which marks a huge shift in priorities from what Gates called “exquisite” weaponry to intelligence, surveillance and counter-terrorism programs that help troops.
Gays: The White House has invited gay parents to bring their families to Monday’s Easter egg roll on the South Lawn, a pastel rainbow gesture that signals inclusiveness.
In these and other ways, Obama, whose communications skills rival Reagan’s, is trying to tap into 21st century sensibilities and priorities to appeal to a younger, more politically independent generation.
On his mission to mend America’s relations with the world, he told Europeans the United States has not always understood Europe’s leadership role and that Americans have been arrogant about Europe. While some older Americans thought Obama’s mild criticism of his own country inappropriate, many young people find his candor and humility refreshing.
Besides, Obama criticized foreigners too, saying Europeans blame America for what’s wrong in the world rather than seeing the good America does.
Reaching out to Muslims, Obama said America, rather than being a Christian, Jewish or Muslim country, is “a nation of citizens that are bound by ideals and a set of values.”
One risk for any president is straying too far from his people. Obama assumes as fact something that polls say actually is unsettled. A new Newsweek poll found that 62 percent of Americans do think the United States is a Christian nation.
That’s perhaps not surprising as 78 percent of Americans say they’re Christian, according to a 2007 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Next, with 16 percent, are the “unaffiliated” – including atheists, agnostics and “nothing in particular.” About 2 percent are Jewish and six-tenths of a percent are Muslim.
Obama acknowledged in Europe that Christians are America’s largest religious group. As a fan of history, he would know the country’s Christian foundations and ties.
Abraham Lincoln, in his second Inaugural Address at the end of the bloody Civil War, spoke of forgiveness and said of soldiers in the North and South, “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.”
Obama is not denigrating the value of Christianity in American life but espousing a more inclusive value of religious freedom and acceptance of different views.
Similarly, he’s inclusive on sexual orientation. The invitation to gay families to the Easter Egg roll was symbolic, but even an audience with the Easter Bunny is not risk-free for the president.
Most people tell pollsters they are opposed to gay marriage, and three-fourths of those surveyed by Newsweek said they have “old fashioned values about family and marriage.”
Obama’s first real test on “gays” could come over legislation pending in Congress that would grant federal benefits to same-sex spouses of federal employees. Obama also needs to remember the practical obstacles to changing attitudes and policy. Members of Congress know the struggles of voters.
Obama may want to stop various big “guns,” including production of the F-22 Raptor fighter jet after only four more are built, rather than expanding its production further. Congressional Republicans are lining up to save the elaborate weaponry – and factory jobs in their districts.
-- Marsha Mercer
(c) 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.