Cover Story

Leap of faith

Campaign 2008 | Barack Obama may have a standard Democratic agenda, but he is aggressively courting churches and Christians in his run for the White House. So just what are his "ground rules for collaboration" with conservative Christians?

Issue: "Preach it," Oct. 6, 2007

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."

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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.

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