May 11th, 2012
04:47 PM ET
By Dan Merica, CNN
Washington (CNN) – Mitt Romney’s commencement speech at Liberty University on Saturday may be a significant moment for the presumptive Republican nominee’s relationship with the evangelical community, but Democrats are not ready to give up the powerful voting bloc and are even trying to use this weekend’s speech to draw a distinction with Romney.
In what was billed as a prebuttal to the commencement address, the Democratic National Committee’s faith outreach director, the Rev. Derrick Harkins, said in a Friday conference call with reporters that President Barack Obama could make inroads with the evangelical community.
“The realties of 2008 point to the fact that we made significant gains among younger evangelicals,” Harkins said. “We seek to do that very thing [again] because we are speaking to the issues that resonate with individuals and certainly younger evangelicals.”
According to Harkins, issues like poverty, immigration and health care are important to evangelical voters, and he believes the president’s stance on these issues will win him votes.
Christine Darby, president of Liberty University Democrats, also was on the Friday conference call, and said that Obama “respects my values and is looking out for not only my best interests, but also the best interest of all Americans and not just the wealthy few.”
Darby addressed the fact that some Liberty University students are opposing Romney’s appearance because he is Mormon, which many evangelicals consider a cult.
“The feeling between the student body and the campus is kind of split as far as people who are looking forward to the outcome of the commencement speaker,” Darby said. “A lot of people really are excited about it, but then there's a few people questioning why is he going to be the main speaker at the commencement.”
Harkin said that Friday’s call had nothing to do with Romney’s Mormon faith.
Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and regular CNN Belief Blog contributor, says that the call was an attempt by the Democrats to become a part of the religion conversation.
“This is a moment to talk about religion, and Democrats want to be in the conversation,” Prothero said. “Democrats want it not to just be a conversation between evangelicals and to what extent they think Mormonism is a Christian religion.”
Obama is vulnerable with some faith leaders. When the president announced this week that he supports same-sex marriage, he further distanced himself from much of the evangelical constituency, which generally opposes gay marriage.
In an interview with ABC News, Obama said that his decision squared with his Christian faith.
“We are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others,” Obama said, referencing his wife, Michelle. “But, you know, when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule.”
Same-sex marriage was not addressed in the prepared section of Friday’s call; it was brought up when reporters asked questions. Pastor JR Kerr, another speaker on the DNC call, described Obama’s revelation as a “clearly personal decision” for the president and one that shows a “high value of what it means to be human” and of “loving your neighbor.” According to Kerr, this “aligns very well with Christians and people of faith.”
Robert Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, told CNN that while same-sex marriage is an important symbolic issue, it is not the leading issue in the minds of evangelical voters.
“Things like the economy, jobs, unemployment, immigration, the environment, all rank higher than the issue of same-sex marriage among evangelicals,” Jones said. “Though evangelicals weight it higher than the general population, it ranks lower than these other issues.”
But a Public Religion Research Institute/ Religion News Service poll released this week found that Romney enjoys a near 50-point lead over Obama among evangelicals, with 68% siding with the former Massachusetts governor and 18% choosing the president.
Romney also experienced favorability increases in the evangelical community, according to the poll. In October 2011, just 40% of evangelical respondents views Romney in a favorable light. In this week poll, 67% of those respondents expressed a favorable view of Romney.
“The evangelical community has been tough for Democrats for recent history. They supported McCain, they supported Bush, they are heavily Republican leaning,” Jones said. “It is a tough road for any Democratic candidate.”
According to the Pew Research Center, 61% of white evangelicals supported Republican John McCain in 2008 over Obama, who got 25% support.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.