Obama's Involvement With Evangelicals Is a Good Thing

In 2004, my husband introduced me to a law school buddy of his who was then a long-shot candidate for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

I was suitably impressed, and both my husband and I made contributions to his campaign. His name was Barack Obama.

You know the rest of the story. As it turns out, Sen. Obama is now tackling one of the issues I've worked on for more than 10 years -- religion's role in American public life.

Obama has written and spoken about the need to reach out to religious communities, and this Friday he is scheduled to participate in a conference on AIDS organized by evangelical leaders Rick and Kay Warren.

Barack Obama's outreach to white evangelicals has some conservatives and some liberals upset. I say, however, that Obama's outreach is a good thing.

The last election signaled that most Americans are sick and tired of extreme partisanship and polarization. They'd like political leaders to work together whenever possible and to avoid demonizing each other when it's not.

One way to work toward these goals is for leaders from both political parties to try to open respectful dialogues with communities with whom they have some serious differences.

For Democrats, one of these communities is evangelicals. A yawning gap has opened up between Democrats and evangelicals, with overwhelming majorities of white evangelicals voting Republican in recent years.

At the moment, many in these two camps have caricatured views of one another.

Unsurprisingly, this has meant that they often are unaware of shared values and goals. By opening up a dialogue, Obama may help remind us that both Democrats and Republicans, evangelicals and people who aren't religious, want to end AIDS and poverty and strengthen human rights abroad, for example. He also might remind us that, while we don't see eye-to-eye on key aspects of the abortion issue, many of us agree that the number of abortions should be reduced.

Not all outreach by politicians to religious communities is a good thing. Frankly, some from both political parties seem to specialize in "what not to do."

Melissa Rogers is a visiting professor of religion and public policy at Wake Forest University Divinity School. Her personal Web blog is Melissa Rogers.

Some politicians treat religion as something to be commanded, controlled or co-opted. But Obama's participation in the Warren's AIDS conference signals a certain seriousness and respect.

It's neither a drop-by nor a directive.

It's a spot on a panel -- a panel that includes Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. -- at a rather meaty conference on AIDS.

Some politicians seem to think that one of the best ways to reach out to religious communities is to trash our safeguards against governmental promotion of religion. But, as Obama notes in his new book, those safeguards are a blessing, not a curse. They protect precious rights of conscience for all and contribute to the flourishing of faith.

None of this necessarily means Barack Obama will win the votes of evangelicals. But it may mean he wins their respect, their ears, and their partnership on issues of shared concern. That would be something important, and something that is good for America.

Melissa Rogers is a visiting professor of religion and public policy at Wake Forest University Divinity School. Her personal Web blog is Melissa Rogers.