Obama Campaign's Leap of Faith

On-air visibility helped swayreligious voters

Christian Broadcasting Network is the only religious or faith-based TV network with a full-fledged news division, but even at competing broadcasters the 2008 presidential election was front and center.

“There was more interest in this election than in any one in my lifetime,” says Paul Crouch Jr., VP at Trinity Broadcasting Network. “We cannot tell people how to vote, but we felt an obligation to educate our viewers on where each candidate stood on issues of faith.”

And while religious networks may focus more on stories relating to religion, CBN news director Rob Allman stresses that his network's coverage strives to be objective. In fact, other executives in the space, such as John Roos, senior VP of corporate communications and research at Inspiration Network, say their obligations to encourage voting and political awareness are no different than those for MTV or BET, which cater to niche demographics. “There are a lot of fine lines to walk, but we take this obligation seriously,” Roos says, adding that Inspiration made an especially big push to inform viewers and encourage voting in the final 60 days of the campaign.

Seeing the light

All of this coverage clearly made an impact on voters, although it was not nearly as right-leaning a push as the Christian media's reputation might have indicated it would be. While evangelicals have been crucial to recent GOP success and the religious media's election attention typically favors the Republicans, the scales did not tip so heavily this time.

Barack Obama's visibility and the opening of evangelicals to other issues apparently produced results: 32% of white evangelicals age 18-29 voted for Obama—double John Kerry's 16% share in 2004—according to a New York Times exit poll analysis. While John McCain still won the vast majority of evangelicals, the shift to Obama in certain key states was a decisive factor.

Craig Parshall, senior VP and general counsel for the National Religious Broadcasters, acknowledges that changes in political ideals are at least being debated among the Christian community, but he cautions that the mainstream press sometimes defines evangelicals more broadly than many Christians do.

Ironically, Phil Blazer, founder of Jewish Life TV, says that the growth of the Republican Jewish community, along with an African-American candidate whose support for Israel was initially questioned, led to atypical dynamics that his network tried covering in debates between proxies for Obama and McCain.

Winning over evangelicals

Obama's accessibility and candor contributed to his effectiveness in winning over evangelicals who watch religious TV programming, executives say. Allman points out that while CBN pursued both candidates equally, it was Obama who provided more access. “McCain sent Sarah Palin instead,” he recalls. “Maybe they felt our audience was already going to vote for them, but Obama got to be heard.” And while CBN covered Obama's religious conversion and his positions on moral issues, “he had good timing because there is a new, younger generation who are ready to look at other issues,” Allman adds.

TBN invited every candidate in the primaries to come on-air but only a few Republicans, such as Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and McCain, accepted the offer. The network made the most of interviews with Obama and McCain conducted prior to the election by author and preacher Rick Warren, who also participated in the inauguration. The interviews were edited down to five-, 15- and 30-minute segments to allow multiple rebroadcasts in different segments. TBN also aired spots produced by various faith-based groups encouraging people to vote.

“Obama was more open, reaching out to evangelicals,” Crouch says. “Rick Warren hit him hard with questions on abortion and other issues, and he didn't duck.”

Obama's campaign also was proactive about connecting with religious voters, Roos says. “Even before Obama was the candidate, the Democratic Party recognized that they had abandoned religious voters and they were extraordinarily aggressive in reaching out to the Christian community, saying that just because you're not Republican doesn't mean you're not Christian,” he says.

Doug Keck, senior VP of programming and production at the Eternal Word Television Network, says the network's Catholic approach means it constrains programming to the teachings of the church, with a “hierarchy of truth” in which the “life issues dwarf other truths.”

Subtle shifts

Elsewhere, though, there have been subtle shifts. “If we have a platform, it is to 'vote the Bible,'” says Inspiration Network's Roos. But while the network remains focused on morality and religious-freedom issues (where it claims the Christian right is being silenced), he adds that “there are a lot of different interpretations about the Bible.” And he says there has been “a bit of softening on the other side, with some evangelicals not as rigid as before.”

While CBN still covers “culture of life” issues that remain paramount for many Christians, it also touches more on environmental and poverty-related issues, which have become increasingly prominent in some evangelical circles in recent years and tend to be considered “Democratic issues.”

Roos echoes that there has been a shift in tone and emphasis. Inspiration's i-Life TV network, for example, has been dealing with environmental issues, a topic Obama stressed during the campaign with his “New Energy for America” plan.