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Change most could believe in

"Change most could believe in" Continued...

Issue: "News of the Year," Dec. 27, 2008

As Obama courted religious voters, the senator met a stumbling block from his own circle: In March, newscasts and YouTube clips circulated the incendiary preaching of Jeremiah Wright, the retiring pastor of Obama's church, Trinity United Church of Christ (UCC). Clips of Wright's preaching included him asking God to damn America, which he referred to as the "U.S. of KKK-A."

Obama initially refused to denounce Wright, but as the controversy worsened, Obama called Wright's remarks "wrong and divisive" and delivered a well-received speech on race that drew attention away from his pastor's racist views. In May, when Catholic priest Michael Pfleger delivered a sermon at Trinity UCC that mocked Hillary Clinton, Obama withdrew his membership from the church.

In the following weeks, the Clinton and McCain camps made similar decisions: Despite Obama's 20-year association with Wright and his church, both campaigns decided not to emphasize the issue. Clinton emphasized her experience and former President Bill Clinton emphasized his wife's qualifications.

By early June, superdelegates narrowly delivered the Democratic nomination to Obama, and Clinton's long battle for the presidency ended. Obama spoke of his win in near-messianic terms: "This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."

The summer passed quickly, with Obama and McCain preparing for their parties' conventions and poring over lists of vice presidential candidates. In late August, Obama and McCain appeared at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in California for a presidential forum.

Though McCain once admitted he's uncomfortable talking about his faith, the candidate fared better than Obama. He delivered succinct answers to questions like, "When do a baby's human rights begin?" McCain's answer: "At conception." Obama offered more meandering responses, defending his support for legalized abortion and saying the question was "above my pay grade."

Evangelical support for McCain was rising, but Obama was making inroads with religious voters as well: At its convention in Denver, the Democratic Party touted a revised platform aimed at reducing abortions while keeping the procedure legal. Evangelicals like Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, and Joel Hunter praised the new language they helped craft, but most evangelicals remained skeptical of a platform that "strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade." Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., accepted the vice presidential nomination in Denver, and Obama accepted the presidential nomination in front of 80,000 people at an elaborate event at Invesco Field.

The next morning, McCain riveted the country with his surprise vice presidential pick: Alaska governor Sarah Palin. While reporters asked each other how to pronounce "Palin," evangelical leaders declared the pick a grand slam. At the Republican convention in Minneapolis, Christians chanted Palin's name and praised her conservative credentials: The pro-life evangelical and mother of five boasted a record of reforming state government in Alaska.

The convention soon turned stormy: Hurricane Gustav threatened the Gulf Coast, postponing convention events, and news broke that Palin's 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, was pregnant. Palin declared her family's support of Bristol's plans to keep her baby and marry the father. Republicans hailed Palin's convention speech to a television audience that rivaled Obama's, and McCain reached out to voters disgruntled with the Republican Party.

But a handful of prominent conservatives soon grew disgruntled with McCain while Palin floundered in broadcast interviews. As the media heaped scorn on Palin, supporters turned out by the thousands to wait for hours to see the candidate at campaign stops around the country.

By late September, an unexpected storm upstaged the candidates: The economy tanked, and with it McCain's campaign. After threatening to cancel the first presidential debate and helping passage of an unpopular congressional bailout for banks, McCain's numbers dropped. Voters went to the polls with the economy on their minds, and Obama easily won.

As he stepped onto the stage at Grant Park, Obama's enthusiasm seemed tempered by the economic crisis gripping the nation, and he hedged the sweeping promises he once made: "The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term, but America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD.

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