Michael Gerson's column on Obama and religion seems to start from the fundamental stance that Democrats need to absorb "evangelicals", a loosely defined demographic if I ever heard one. The generally accepted polling on the group puts it at about 25% of the population (75 million people, give or take), which makes me extremely skeptical that it can be treated a large monolith of rigid ideology. Gerson says as much, but after years as a Republican operative, he reflexively does it anyway.
Gerson's loaded language is often rooted in stereotype: "For Democrats, the speech was a class in remedial religion." This would presumably be because Gerson believes that ordinary Americans who are also Democrats are stupid when it comes to religion. It suggests a real quandry then that Obama should be speaking in a church at all. He's running for the Democratic nomination. What on earth was he thinking going into a sanctuary where ordinary Democrats, according to Gerson, fear to tread?
Gerson is pig-headed and offensive in his remarks, as when he describes the United Church of Christ as "among the most excruciatingly progressive of Protestant denominations". That's apparently code for "they focus on poverty, hunger, community, and they don't hate the gays."
Candidates have every right to talk about their faith, or not. It isn't "the religious left" that has pushed us to the point where every candidate is required to pander his or her faith and be judged by people like Gerson on his or her ability to reach out to a core group of ultra-conservative ideologues who happen to be Christian.
As the Dem nominee, Obama is a candidate who could peel off a solid strip of evangelical voters with relative ease. John Kerry won 20% of evangelical votes. An additional 10% would wound the GOP deeply. 20% would kill it. I agree with Gerson that the eventual nominee must cast his or her philosophy and policy ideas into moral themes about America's promise for the future. This will have the impact of appealing to evangelicals, but the point isn't to appeal to any one group. The point is to lead America into that promising future, evangelicals and all.