Obama Reaches Out to Faith-Based Voters

The language of faith has sometimes been a foreign tongue to Democratic candidates, but not for Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who, today, courted voters from communities of faith in Zanesville, Ohio.

"I came to see my faith as being both a personal commitment to Christ and a commitment to my community," he said, addressing a group at Eastside Community Ministry. "That, while I could sit in church and pray all I want, I wouldn't be fulfilling God's will unless I went out and did the Lord's work."

Obama has said that, if elected president, he would expand the office of faith-based initiatives started by President Bush, which channels federal money to religious groups, and provides assistance for religious organizations to help those in need.

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"The fact is, the challenges we face today -- from saving our planet to ending poverty -- are simply too big for government to solve alone," Obama said. "We need all hands on deck."

Obama's approach is part of what his campaign calls unprecedented religious outreach for a Democratic candidate, including sponsoring Christian rock concerts and a promise to hold 1,000 house parties on religion.

Josh Dubois, the 25-year-old son of a preacher, and Obama's director of religious affairs, commented on the centrality of his candidate's faith and its importance for the country.

"We talk about Sen. Obama and his Christian journey," Dubois said. "But more importantly, we talk about how we can find points of common ground across religious lines, and how we can move our country forward."

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It is no coincidence that this is Obama's second appearance in a battleground state this week. On Monday, Obama defended his patriotism in Independence, Mo., attempting to assuage concerns that he did not wear a flag pin during the primary season.

Obama's faith talk today in the battleground state of Ohio points to the candidate's desire to reach out to traditionally Republican constituencies.

Conservative Christians comprise about a quarter of the electorate, and the evangelical community played a big role in both of Bush's presidential campaigns.

An ABC News poll found that just 22 percent of white evangelical voters say they support Obama, which is only 1 point greater than John Kerry received in 2004.

But, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is no evangelical hero, which is not surprising, given that he called evangelical leaders Jerry Falwell and Pat Roberson "agents of intolerance." Even though he has since rescinded those comments, evangelical support for McCain is at 68 percent, 10 points lower than what Bush receieved.

"One of the ironies of the 2008 campaign is Sen. Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, is much more comfortable talking about his faith and values than the presumptive Republican nominee," said John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Affairs.

While a younger generation of Christians may connect to Obama, in terms of social justice causes, such as poverty and AIDS, Obama's stances on abortion and same-sex marriage present great barriers to winning the level of evangelical support he seeks.

Another obstacle is the circulating rumor that Obama is Muslim, and his earlier association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. Obama has gone to great lengths to dissociate himself from his former pastor.

Steven Mansfield, author of "The Faith of Obama," expressed skepticism about Obama's ability to appeal to evangelical groups.

"I think there's going to be a limit to how many evangelicals he can actually win, because, for evangelicals, abortion really is the litmus test," Mansfield said.

Despite these potential barriers, the Obama campaign only needs a narrow margin of faith-based voters who backed Bush in 2004, to realign with the Democrats.

And in the quest for the presidency, the Obama campaign has promised to leave no pew unturned.

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