Strange Bedfellows: Obama and Evangelicals

New Approach

"We are explicitly doing this much different from the conservatives. There is a broad range of values we're addressing: health care, international aid and development, the war in Iraq. This is truly progressive. We're leading with a desire to uphold the separation of church and state, and we're mindful of the theoretical and very real IRS guidelines about what religious leaders can and cannot do," he said.

He said Obama's imperative to court religious voters began before anyone anticipated he and John McCain would be their parties' presumptive nominees, and that McCain's poor standing in the evangelical community had nothing to do with it.

Courting Christians is nothing new to Obama. In the 1980s as a community organizer in Chicago, Obama found local churches essential to propagating his education and housing programs. It was also in those churches, he says, that he found Jesus Christ.

"There are a tremendous number of evangelicals, and also Catholics. They make up a significant voting block. When Obama becomes president he will be president of all Americans. So it is important to open dialogues and build bridges now," the campaign official said.

Obama is concentrating on young voters rather than older conservative voters who are unlikely to elect a pro-choice candidate.

"Evangelicals are very Republican," said John C. Green, a senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "He faces not just the partisan hurdles of being pro-choice and in favor of gay marriage, but he also has to contend with the controversy over the Rev. Wright and his comments about religious people being bitter and clinging to religion."

According to the most recent ABC News poll, evangelical white Protestants favored McCain over Obama by 66 to 26 percent. (White Catholics, who are swing voters, divided about evenly, 45 to 47. Nonreligious voters split 32 to 62 percent.)

Obama's support from evangelicals is fairly similar to the 21 percent Sen. John Kerry, D- Mass., wrested from President Bush, a favorite son of the evangelical movement.

"Obama could never appeal to the majority of white evangelicals. The question is: Can he make more of a dent than Kerry? Can he do better than that 22 percent?" asked Green.

Obama's plan to go after young evangelicals mirrors his own faith, but exploits a growing divide in the evangelical community, said Tony Campolo, a progressive pastor and professor who advises the Democratic National Convention on matters of faith.

Campolo preaches what he calls "radical" or "red letter" Christianity, highlighting the calls for social action in Christ's words -- feed the hungry, house the homeless, clothe the naked.

The Abortion Debate

Obama's evangelical supporters, like Obama himself, view Christianity in a similar light, interpreting the Bible literally but concentrating on its message of social justice. Older voters, he said, will never stop thinking about abortion and gay marriage as key issues, but young people might.

"There is a broadening of the agenda among younger evangelicals. Young people are tired of the homosexual issue. They have class and sit in the commons of their colleges and have open discussions with gay people. They know the things they hear on conservative radio about gays aren't true," he said.

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