When Barack Obama became the presumptive Democratic Party nominee in June, it set up a general election contest with Republican John McCain that will offer socially conservative voters two very different choices on a host of cultural issues.
A senator from Illinois, Obama is the first African-American to lead a major political party, and if elected would serve during the 150th anniversary of both the Emancipation Proclamation and the beginning of the Civil War, the war that freed the slaves.
When Obama presumably clinched the Democratic Party nomination in June, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, observed, "I think we should pause to give our country a round of applause for having nominated the first African-American candidate for president. Whether or not we can support this particular African-American candidate, I think it says something pretty great about our country, that we have nominated someone who at least on his father's side is represented by about 13 percent of the population and a percentage of the population that has been sadly and tragically the object of a great deal of prejudice and hostility and violence.
"I'm very pleased that we have done this, even if I am not particularly happy with this particular candidate," he added. "I think it says something really good and strong and fine about our country."
Obama and McCain will present voters with two drastically different visions for the country, Land said.
"I think it's going to be a very close race, just like the last two," he said. "The American people will be faced with a clear choice on areas like national security, areas like the role the government should play in the life of individuals and families in terms of income and in terms of health care. And, of course, the life issue and the marriage issue. There's a pretty stark contrast there. Americans certainly can't say that the system has not produced a very, very clear and contrasting choice."
A poll by LifeWay Research showed that 80 percent of Southern Baptist pastors support McCain and 1 percent back Obama. Fifteen percent were undecided.
Following is a list of five issues important to social conservatives and where Obama and McCain stand.
McCain and Obama have differed significantly in their judicial philosophies, with McCain voting to confirm President Bush's two Supreme Court nominees — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito — and Obama voting against them. During the 1980s, McCain also voted for Robert Bork, a hero of conservatives who was nominated by President Bush but failed to make it out of the Senate.
During a Democratic debate last November, Obama said he "would not appoint somebody [to the Supreme Court] who doesn't believe in the right to privacy" — a legal concept that is at the heart of Roe v. Wade. Last July, Obama gave a speech to Planned Parenthood — the nation's largest abortion provider — where he underscored his commitment to making sure the Supreme Court upholds Roe.
"With one more vacancy on the court, we could be looking at a majority hostile to a woman's fundamental right to choose for the first time since Roe versus Wade, and that is what is at stake in this election," he said. "... There will always be people, many of goodwill, who do not share my view on the issue of choice. On this fundamental issue, I will not yield and Planned Parenthood will not yield."
Obama also criticized the Supreme Court's decision in Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood upholding a federal ban on partial-birth abortion — a procedure that involves partially delivering a mid- to late-term baby feet-first and suctioning out its brain, preventing a live birth.
"It is time for a different attitude in the White House," he said of the decision. "It is time for a different attitude in the Supreme Court. It is time to turn the page and write a new chapter in American history."
McCain has pledged, if elected, to look for nominees "in the cast of" Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Samuel Alito, and former Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
"In federal and state courts, and in the practice of law across our nation, there are still men and women who understand the proper role of our judiciary," he said in a May 6 speech. "And I intend to find them — and promote them — if I am elected president. ... I will look for accomplished men and women with a proven record of excellence in the law and a proven commitment to judicial restraint."
McCain criticized what he called examples of "judicial activism" by courts in recent years. He pointed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals' 2002 ruling that prohibited the Pledge of Allegiance from being recited in public schools if it included the phrase "Under God."
"For decades now, some federal judges have taken it upon themselves to pronounce and rule on matters that were never intended to be heard in courts or decided by judges," he said. "With a presumption that would have amazed the framers of our Constitution — and legal reasoning that would have mystified them — federal judges today issue rulings and opinions on policy questions that should be decided democratically. Assured of lifetime tenures, these judges show little regard for the authority of the president, the Congress, and the states. They display even less interest in the will of the people. And the only remedy available to any of us is to find, nominate, and confirm better judges."
The court's two oldest and two of its most liberal members, eighty-eight-year-old John Paul Stevens and seventy-five-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg, support Roe v. Wade. Some court observers believe the two justices could be waiting for a Democratic president to be elected before stepping down.
Obama supports abortion rights and the Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide, while McCain opposes abortion rights and favors overturning Roe. NARAL Pro-Choice America has endorsed Obama; National Right to Life has endorsed McCain.
Obama has pledged to nominate only judges who support legal concepts at the heart of Roe (see "Judges" entry above). He also has said he "will not yield" on such a "fundamental" issue as abortion and that he is committed to seeing Roe v. Wade remain the law of the land.
"The first thing I'd do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act. That's the first thing that I'd do," he said at a Planned Parenthood gathering of a proposed law backed by Democratic leaders that would codify abortion-on-demand as the law of the land and also overturn every pro-life law — such as mandatory waiting periods, parental notifications, and partial-birth abortion bans — on the federal and state level.
As a state legislator in Illinois, Obama also opposed a bill that would have given legal rights to and required medical care be given any baby who survives an abortion. A federal version, called the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, passed the Senate in 2002 by unanimous consent and was signed into law by President Bush.
McCain has a consistent pro-life record on abortion going back to his days in the 1980s as a representative in the House. As a senator, he voted for the federal ban on partial-birth abortion. He told a rally in South Carolina in February 2007, "I do not support Roe versus Wade. It should be overturned." Three months later on NBC's Meet the Press, McCain said, "I have stated time after time after time that Roe v. Wade was a bad decision, that I support ... the rights of the unborn [and] that I have fought for human rights and human dignity throughout my entire political career. To me, it's an issue of human rights and human dignity."
A statement on McCain's Web site says the issue of abortion should "not be decided by judicial fiat."
"However, the reversal of Roe v. Wade represents only one step in the long path toward ending abortion," his Web site states. "Once the question is returned to the states, the fight for life will be one of courage and compassion — the courage of a pregnant mother to bring her child into the world and the compassion of civil society to meet her needs and those of her newborn baby. The pro-life movement has done tremendous work in building and reinforcing the infrastructure of civil society by strengthening faith-based, community, and neighborhood organizations that provide critical services to pregnant mothers in need. This work must continue and government must find new ways to empower and strengthen these armies of compassion. These important groups can help build the consensus necessary to end abortion at the state level. As John McCain has publicly noted, 'At its core, abortion is a human tragedy. To effect meaningful change, we must engage the debate at a human level.'"
Embryonic Stem Cell Research
Both Obama and McCain support giving federal funding to embryonic stem cell research, which kills the tiny human beings.
"My hope, and the hope of so many in this country, is to provide our researchers with the means to explore the uses of embryonic stem cells so that we can begin to turn the tide on the devastating diseases affecting our nation and the world," Obama said in an April 2007 statement.
McCain's position on embryonic stem cell research probably is his most significant divide with the pro-family community.
"All I can say to you is that I went back and forth, back and forth on it and I came in on one of the toughest decisions I've ever had, in favor of that research," he said, according to a Catholic News Agency article reported by LifeNews.com. "And one reason being, very frankly, is those embryos will be either discarded or kept in permanent frozen status."
He added: "I understand how divisive this is among the pro-life community."
Sen. Sam Brownback, a staunch pro-lifer and a McCain supporter, told LifeNews.com that he is trying to persuade the Arizona senator to oppose embryonic stem cell research and to support ethically acceptable alternatives. In November, scientists reported they had discovered a means of producing stem cells that are virtually the same as embryonic ones without destroying human life. The new method uses adult stem cells derived from, for instance, skin cells.
"I've hit him up on that hard and hit his campaign up on that hard with the breakthrough of reprogramming skin cells," Brownback said. "His language has changed, although his position has not on this."
Said McCain: "I believe that skin stem cell research has every potential very soon of making that discussion academic .... Sam Brownback and others are very encouraged at this latest advance."
Stem cells from non-embryonic sources — such as umbilical cord blood, placentas, fat, and bone marrow — have produced treatments for at least seventy-three human ailments, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research.
"Gay Marriage" and "Gay Rights"
Obama says he opposes "gay marriage" but — in a position that some say is contradictory — has pledged to overturn the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the very law that prevents the federal government from recognizing "gay marriage" and that gives states the option of not recognizing another state's "gay marriage." Additionally, he opposes a federal marriage amendment and said he "respects" the decision of the California Supreme Court legalizing "gay marriage." Obama also supports same-sex civil unions that grant homosexual couples the legal benefits of marriage. McCain opposes "gay marriage" and a federal marriage amendment but has said he is open to passing one in the future if a federal court orders a state to legalize "gay marriage." McCain also backs state constitutional marriage amendments, such as the one in California.
During August, Obama appeared at a "gay forum" with the other Democratic candidates to discuss issues important to the homosexual community. It was televised on the MTV-owned Logo Channel — a homosexual-themed channel. He seemed to criticize Christian conservatives for their interpretation of certain biblical passages.
"There are some folks who, coming out of the church, have elevated one line of Romans above the Sermon on the Mount," said Obama, who added that homosexual issues are part of his core beliefs.
In February, he wrote a letter to the homosexual community, pledging to use the "bully pulpit" to urge states to grant same-sex couples the legal benefits of marriage.
"I believe that we can achieve the goal of full equality for the millions of LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] people in this country," he said. "To do that, we need leadership that can appeal to the best parts of the human spirit. Join with me, and I will provide that leadership. Together, we will achieve real equality for all Americans, gay and straight alike."
McCain voted against the federal marriage amendment in the Senate but, in 2006, taped TV ads supporting a proposed marriage amendment to the Arizona state constitution. During a March appearance on Fox News' Hannity & Colmes, McCain explained his position on the issue.
"I believe that the states should make these decisions on the marriage amendment," he said, according to a transcript. "I am a federalist and I believe that states like mine and other states ... should amend our state constitutions, and I will stick to that position until such time, if ever, a higher court says that my state or another state has to recognize ... another status of marriage. I am committed to maintaining the unique status of marriage between man and woman. I think it can best be accomplished, and in keeping with my federalist philosophy that states should do as much as possible to have that done at the state level. But if it is overturned by a superior court, I will then obviously support the other path [a federal marriage amendment]."
Both Obama and McCain believe in man-made global warming and support changes that the Bush administration opposes.
Obama's plan calls for a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions of 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050, according to The New York Times. McCain backs a cut of at least 60 percent during the same time period.
Both men support a "cap-and-trade system" that would set a limit on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions and permit a trading system among companies, enabling those that produce more emissions to purchase credits from those that produce fewer.
Note: Text from the Obama speech before Planned Parenthood was obtained from the blog of Laura Echevarria, former director of media relations for the National Right to Life Committee. Video of Obama's speech is available at www.imoneinamillion.com.
Michael Foust is a member of Judson Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and is an assistant editor for Baptist Press. Additional reporting by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.