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On the Campaign Trail

Nathan Blake is a 28-year-old lawyer who left his firm to work full-time in Iowa on the Barack Obama campaign for president. He talks to Spectrum about mixing politics and religion, and Obama’s chances.

Question: What is your role in the Barack Obama campaign? What do you do every day?

Answer: I’ve been a field organizer for about a year and recently switched to the communications team in Iowa.

Field work is on-the-ground voter contact – what this campaign is famous for.

During the lengthy primary season, I knocked on hundreds of doors, made thousands of phone calls, and generally helped direct volunteer efforts in Iowa, California, Ohio, Mississippi, and North Carolina.

My new job for the general election is more media-driven and a bit removed from direct voter contact. We’re still transitioning, but I help out with our in-state message – especially when it comes to defining how our opponent is out of step with Iowans.

Q: When did you join the campaign? What was the political situation then, and what were pundits saying Obama’s chances were?

A: I joined a little over a year ago. Hillary Clinton was up by 15-20 points in national polls and we were in third place in Iowa.

I honestly thought we’d win. I guess most pundits didn’t, though.

Q: What motivated you to work for Obama?

A: I have always been interested in politics (ever since being one of two students in a class of 30 3rd and 4th graders to support Dukakis).

I figured I’d have an opportunity to get involved in this campaign since we lived in Iowa, but I didn’t expect to be so taken with one particular candidate.

As Democrats, we were lucky to have a lot of good candidates this year. But Barack is the only one who has the potential to be a truly transformative leader for our country. He isn’t perfect, of course, but he is progressive and genuine and brilliant and has the ability to inspire us.

Q: What are your colleagues on the campaign like? Are very many of them active Christians/religious?

A: They are great: pleasant, fun, committed, creative, smart.

During the primary, it was good to have so many “true believers” – people who weren’t necessarily “campaign people,” but decided to make a commitment because they believed in Obama and this movement so strongly.

We have a very diverse crew when it comes to religious background, but the campaign has been very accommodating about Sabbath-keeping (which is a challenge, since it’s really a seven-day-a-week job).

Barack himself is very comfortable talking about his personal Christian beliefs and that sets the tone for the campaign.

Q: What is Obama like as a person? What interaction have you had with him?

A: He’s the most genuine, authentic politician I’ve met.

I don’t mean to blow it out of proportion because he’s obviously not perfect, but he treats people with respect.

I’ve had the opportunity to meet him on a handful of occasions in a few different settings and he never disappoints. I got to brief him – very briefly – a couple times before some Iowa events.

And the morning after Senator Obama’s game-changing Jefferson-Jackson Dinner speech in Iowa last November, he and Michelle met with all the staff and our families, which was very generous of them. That was particularly cool because my parents and wife both got to meet them.

Q: Does working on a political campaign pay well?

A: No.

Q: What did you do before you joined the campaign?

A: I went to a lot of school, got a Masters in Ethics at Divinity School and a law degree. Then I practiced law at a small firm in Des Moines for two years (aka “the dark years”).

Q: What got you interested in politics? Are you considering a political career yourself?

A: I honestly believe that politics is the best way to help the most people (on a physical, temporal level; not a spiritual, eternal level).

Through policy and government there are opportunities to make a positive impact on so many people in so many areas of their lives.

I do also enjoy the game of politics. I expect that I’ll continue to be involved in politics in one way or another for the rest of my life.

Q: What do you think you will do when the campaign is over?

A: Cabinet appointment. No, really, I hope to stay involved with progressive policy work in some way or another. I certainly won’t go back to the private practice of law.

Q: How do you fit being an Adventist with being active in politics? Do they complement each other? Are there conflicts?

A: As I mentioned, keeping the Sabbath on the campaign trail is a challenge because it’s a round-the-clock job.

I have a particular activist view of Christian ethics, so I think our beliefs can complement involvement in politics. The conflicts come in when you try to marry the absolutes of our faith with the reality of politics, where compromise is inherent and necessary.

Q: Do you think the Adventist church as a whole has stuck with its traditional belief in separation of church and state? Churches and the religious right have elevated their profile significantly in recent years. How is the Adventist church different in its political involvement than other major churches – or is it similar?

A: Yes, especially from the General Conference, we’ve done a good job of staying consistent on religious freedom, I think. Whether that filters down to individual churches is more of a gamble (e.g., my pastor in New Haven lamented the fact that we no longer prayed in school and had us sing “God Bless America” during a worship service).

I think our belief in separation has helped our church – as an institution – stay out of some of the more lamentable entries into politics coming from certain churches.

I do think that there are certain areas of historical strength where we could reassert our moral authority: pacifism, good health, human dignity and human rights. But that’s issue-based stuff, not partisan hack stuff.

Q: Do you believe the Adventist church should be more political? How does the role of the Church as a whole and politics fit together?

A: No, not really. I mean, as I said before, certain explicitly “ethical” areas fit in nicely with church’s mission and history, but I’m frankly a little pessimistic about where and how our church would get involved on national policy issues. Grand generalizations of moral authority are good. Policy specifics or partisanship from the pulpit would be bad.

Q: Give us your predictions for the outcome of the November elections.

A: Obama wins, Democrats gain in Senate and House, and this country starts to turn things around.

Nathan Blake has a bachelors from Union College, a Masters of Arts in Religion from Yale Divinity School and a JD from Yale Law School.

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