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Small Westmont group tilts toward Obama

By   /   Thursday, July 3rd, 2008  /   Comments Off on Small Westmont group tilts toward Obama

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Fearing the Lord and voting Democrat may no longer be seen as a contradiction.

A group called Evangelicals for Obama met on June 28, including several employees of – but not representing – Westmont College.

Many of the comments were the same as one would expect from employees of a secular institution. They’re excited by the prospect of change and bipartisan cooperation. They appreciate Sen. Barack Obama’s multi-racial, international background. They admire his intelligence and willingness to take on complex issues. They’ve had enough of the current administration.

But the 19 participants also discussed virtue versus policy, the importance of a candidate’s personal faith, and how faith should influence one’s vote.

For Chris Hoeckley, director of Westmont’s Gaede Institute for the Liberal Arts, it involves his belief in pacifism.

For Elena Yee, director of the college’s intercultural programs, it includes a call to care for the poor.

Professor Cheri Larsen-Hoeckley spoke of hope.

An Obama supporter, she expressed “a little anxiety about enthusiasm for the sake of enthusiasm.” However, she added, “some of that is choosing hope rather than fear. We are called to be people of hope. We fear one thing, and that is the Lord…. I’m tired of living in a country that has taken every opportunity to fear.”

Evangelical Christians accounted for more than 20 percent of voters in the last presidential election, according to published reports. President Bush garnered 80 percent of their votes.

Polls now show one in four evangelicals supporting Obama. The Illinois Democrat on July 1 proposed a new Council for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, taking over where he said Bush’s office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives fell short.

Obama supporters are still a minority among evangelicals, but “there’s a lot more room to allow for these different identities,” Yee said.

It’s a far cry from three years ago, when a friend at the University of California, Santa Barbara was intrigued to encounter a Christian Democrat. “Do you really exist?” she recalls him asking.

Students take note

Some 150 Westmont students turned out to watch the primaries’ results, and a number attended Obama’s talk at Santa Barbara City College last year.

Westmont students often come from conservative homes, said Larsen-Hoeckley, who expects the majority to vote Republican in the fall.

However, she’s recently seen them become more aware of issues such as global poverty, responding to HIV/AIDS and global warming.

“After the last election, a student said ‘I’ve never heard a sermon about gay marriage or abortion, but the media is telling me those are the important issues for us,’” Larsen-Hoeckley said.

In response, a weekly discussion series was launched, excluding those so-called key issues but covering human trafficking, global warming, caring for the elderly, politics as idolatry, and more.

Yee, who initially thought the country was not ready for a woman or bi-racial candidate, hosted a spring program about the candidates’ diversity – including then-candidate Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith.

Students today “accept diversity without question, but also they don’t want to talk about it,” Yee said. “They’re being surprised by the strength of the conversations.”

David Moore, who did not attend the June 28 meeting, believes Obama would offer the country “sorely needed” international cachet.

Moore cited a June poll showing 26 percent of Canadians would vote for Obama, beating their own prime minister by 5 percent.

The pastor of the New Covenant Worship Center in Goleta, Moore has not endorsed a candidate. However, he sees enthusiasm for Obama among friends in various denominations including evangelicals, Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Messianic Jews.

Excited for a change

The meeting on June 28 began with a video from Obama’s 2006 speech on faith and politics.

“It’s so refreshing, hearing someone intelligent, articulate, humble, sensitive, nuanced” – something “missing so long” from politics, said professor Jim Taylor.

“I sure hope I like his policies, because I like him,” he added. “Policy is not enough; policy changes. You have to focus on the virtues,” said Dana Alexander, director of Westmont’s office of life planning.

Alexander cited a June article in Christianity Today called “How to choose a candidate: why virtue trumps policy.”

“I just sense Obama has more of the virtues… we look for in a human being, not just a political candidate,” he said, adding that he, too, has questions about specific policies.

One participant asked specifically why as an evangelical Christian he should vote for Obama.

It’s not a simple answer. Candidates always offer a mixed bag of policies, one person said.

Evangelicals differ among themselves on policy, another noted. They even disagree on the definition of “evangelical.”

Larsen-Hoeckley offered one definition: People who accept Jesus Christ as their savior and look to the Bible as true in all it teaches.

That is a statement about her faith, not her politics, she added.

Yee chose the group’s title, Evangelicals for Obama, knowing it would pique interest.

“I use the term knowing that people often misunderstand. Those of us who are evangelical want to reclaim that term for ourselves,” she said.

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