ATLANTA- Moments before Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) bounded onto the stage at a campaign rally in downtown Atlanta late last month, retired minister and civil-rights icon Joe Lowery offered an opening prayer: "Lord, we are here tonight because when we sing 'My Country 'Tis of Thee,' we see too much misery."
The 2,200 supporters gathered in a ballroom at the Georgia World Congress Center responded with chuckles and scattered applause. But the chuckles turned into a resounding "Amen" when Lowery, 82, compared Obama to John the Baptist. Lowery prayed for the success of his presidential run, concluding "in the name of justice."
Obama finally took the stage two hours after the doors opened and delivered a well-worn stump speech with the enthusiasm and cadence of a preacher. The crowd cheered in agreement when the Democratic presidential candidate spoke of being "my brother's keeper."
Religious language and themes aren't new for the Obama campaign. The Illinois senator has compared himself to a modern-day Joshua who longs to lead the American people into the Promised Land. Earlier this year, Obama told an A.M.E. congregation in Selma, Ala., that he draws encouragement from God's Old Testament words to Joshua to "be strong and have courage, for I am with you wherever you go."
Any candidate needs strength and courage for a presidential run, but Obama recognizes that he also needs faith. He protests the notion that faith and politics must remain separate, and chastises fellow Democrats for abandoning religious ideas in the public square.
Less than three months before the presidential primaries begin, Obama is trailing front-runner Hillary Clinton in the polls, but he is pressing religion more than any of his Democratic opponents: He openly offers his account of converting to Christianity, has delivered at least two major speeches on faith and politics, and is aggressively courting support from churches and individual Christians.
The Obama strategy is key to distinguishing himself from Clinton, who shares nearly identical policy positions on issues like health care, economics, and the war in Iraq. The goal is clear: Gain an edge by tapping into a segment of religious voters that Democrats have largely ignored in the past; insist that conservative Christians should compromise on principle for the sake of consensus. In his words, the "so-called leaders of the Christian right" are "hijacking" faith and "all too eager to exploit what divides us."
Apart from commending conservative evangelicals for combating poverty and for drawing attention to the African crisis in Darfur and over AIDS, Obama makes it clear that he doesn't often agree with the religious right. Yet he has sought consensus among Christian leaders well known in conservative circles-appearing late last year at a church-sponsored event to combat AIDS with mega-church pastor and Purpose Driven Life author Rick Warren.
Obama also strikes themes that resonate with conservative evangelicals. He speaks about the importance of family and individual responsibility in addressing poverty, AIDS, and unwanted pregnancies. He stresses the urgency of cultivating strong fathers in the black community and says the government is no substitute for good dads. He also speaks about the importance of his own family, including his wife of 14 years, Michelle, a Harvard-educated attorney he met while working at a law firm in Chicago. The couple still live in Chicago with their two daughters, ages 9 and 6.
When Obama delivered a speech about faith and politics at the Call to Renewal conference organized by left-leaning evangelical Jim Wallis and others, he told the group that Democrats need to compete for the support of Christians. "Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square." But he also challenged conservative Christians to "accept some ground rules for collaboration" with those with whom they disagree.
Specifically, Obama believes conservatives should be willing to compromise on the issues of abortion and civil unions for homosexuals. The candidate vigorously supports both.
In his political memoir The Audacity of Hope, Obama, 46, makes clear that his religious views, like his political ones, are progressive and liberal. Nearly 20 years ago, he joined the United Church of Christ (UCC), a self-described "progressive" denomination that was the first to openly ordain homosexuals. In 2005, the UCC passed a resolution supporting gay marriage. (Like other Democratic front-runners, Obama says he doesn't support gay marriage, but advocates civil unions for homosexual couples.)
Obama and his wife are long-time members of Trinity UCC, an 8,500-member congregation in Chicago that represents the largest predominantly black church in the denomination.
But Obama didn't always identify himself as a Christian. The senator grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia, raised by grandparents and a single mother who later remarried. Obama's father, a Kenyan whom he met only a short time before his death, grew up a nominal Muslim but embraced atheism later in life. Obama's mother encouraged her son to learn about all religions-he attended both Islamic and Catholic schools-but was skeptical of religious systems.
Obama embraced his mother's skepticism and didn't seriously consider religion until after college when he took a job as a community organizer for a group of inner-city churches in Chicago. He visited Trinity UCC on a Sunday morning in 1988 and heard pastor Jeremiah Wright deliver a sermon called "The Audacity of Hope." "And during the course of that sermon, he introduced me to someone named Jesus Christ," says Obama. "I learned that my sins could be redeemed."
Obama says he embraced Christianity and was especially drawn to Wright's emphasis on black liberation theology: The pastor interpreted the Bible as a story of the struggles of black people and emphasized social justice.
"Inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion's den, Ezekiel's field of dry bones," Obama wrote in his autobiography Dreams from My Father. "Those stories of survival, and freedom, and hope-became our story, my story."
Obama's story continued to unfold at Harvard, where he earned a law degree in 1991 and became the first black student to head the prestigious Harvard Law Review. While practicing as a civil-rights lawyer and teaching constitutional law, Obama served in the Illinois state Senate for eight years. In 2004, he became just the third African-American elected to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction, and his widely praised keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention established him as a rising star in the party.
Today when Obama speaks about faith, he still focuses on human struggle and the need for social change, but he doesn't focus only on race. And since running for the White House he has distanced himself from his pastor's political views: Wright often preaches in scorching terms about "the Great White West," and he declared that 9/11 was the result of violent American policies.
Obama has said the Bible is not "a static text" and says he "must be continually open to new revelations"-and he has acknowledged that those who believe the Bible is inerrant and that it teaches, for example, that abortion is wrong aren't likely to accept his "ground rules for collaboration." So as the campaign reaches out to religious voters, the discussion typically steers clear of such controversial subjects. On a recent Saturday morning at a campaign-organized "faith forum" in rural South Carolina, the subject didn't come up at all.
About 20 people gathered in a meeting room at a small hotel in Greenwood, S.C., mostly from black Baptist churches in the area. At least six staffers from Obama's state campaign met with the pastors and church members to discuss how faith affects politics, and to assure the group of Obama's commitment to Christianity.
Most of the participants expressed concerns over issues like health care and unemployment in the economically depressed region. An elderly pastor with a strong voice and dark blue suspenders lamented his struggles to afford good health care: "Here we live in this big democratic country, and there ain't no medicine for the poor people." He spoke of choosing between buying food or prescription medicine. He recounted sometimes asking the pharmacist to fill only half a prescription so that he could afford it.
Campaign staffers told the group about Obama's plan for health care. The candidate favors a universal health-care proposal similar to those of Democratic opponents Clinton and John Edwards: It requires employers to provide insurance to employees, but also allows individuals to purchase their own insurance from a regulated marketplace of competing health plans.
The plan would also offer incentives for improving preventative care, and provide subsidies for individuals who cannot afford health-care premiums. Obama says the plan would cost the federal government $50 billion to $60 billion a year once fully implemented. Like Clinton and Edwards, he says he'll pay for the plan by allowing tax cuts to expire for those making over $250,000 a year.
Obama concedes his plan is not substantially different from his opponents' plans, except for one thing: The Clinton and Edwards plans would make coverage mandatory for all Americans. Obama says he wants to make sure coverage is affordable before it is mandatory.
Obama also proposes $80 billion in annual tax relief for lower-income Americans and senior citizens. He proposes eliminating taxes on seniors earning less than $50,000 a year, a plan that would affect about 22 million elderly people. He says he would pay for the cuts by raising the rates on capital gains and dividends for wealthy investors.
All of that sounds good to Renea Little, who sits at a small table in the hotel conference room, talking about why she volunteered for Obama's campaign. Little has lived in Greenwood her entire life and is currently unemployed in a region that suffered a severe economic blow with the decline of the U.S. textile industry. She thinks Obama "will bring us all hope."
Little is a member of a nearby Baptist church and says it's important to know that a candidate believes in God. She liked what she heard about Obama's faith during the forum, but when asked if his positions on abortion or homosexuality are troubling to her, Little's countenance slightly falls. She asks in a lowered voice: "Is he for those things?"
Obama has consistently talked about reducing the number of abortions and increasing the number of adoptions, but also consistently supported legalized abortion. As an Illinois state senator during 2001 and 2002, he voted against the Illinois Born Alive Infants Protection Act, a bill aimed at protecting babies who survive abortions.
The senator cited concerns over the legislation's provision for civil and criminal penalties for offending doctors. The legislation failed in Illinois, but a similar bill passed on the federal level in 2002.
Earlier this year Obama condemned the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to uphold the ban on partial-birth abortion, saying he feared it "will embolden state legislatures to enact further measures to restrict a woman's right to choose." But on the trail he rarely mentions abortion, instead focusing on issues more likely to drive the next election; chiefly, the war in Iraq.
Obama repeatedly reminds voters that he was the only leading Democratic candidate against the war from the beginning. He opposed the war in 2002 while still a state senator in Illinois. After winning a U.S. Senate seat in 2004, Obama initially hesitated about supporting a timetable for withdrawing troops. When Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) called for such a timetable in 2005, Obama resisted. "I'm not a military man," he told the Chicago Tribune. "I'm not running the war in Iraq."
Last summer, Obama voted against a plan to withdraw troops within a year. One year later, as a presidential candidate, Obama has proposed a very specific timetable for withdrawal: Now he has called for withdrawing a brigade a month, with all combat troops withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2008.
Clinton and Edwards are also calling for troop withdrawals, and the three front-runners often compete to see who opposes the war most. As with health care and the economy, their plans are much the same. With such similar positions on so many issues so close to the Democratic primaries, Alania Beverly, Obama's deputy political director in South Carolina, admits the race will ultimately boil down to the character of the man-or woman: "It's going to come down to who has the political will to get it done."