By Daniel Burke
Religion News Service
Saturday, June 21, 2008
WASHINGTON -- With the Democratic presidential nomination in his grasp, Sen. Barack Obama is making a full-throttle push for centrist evangelicals and Catholics.
It's a move that's caught some conservative evangelicals off guard. They say they are surprised and dismayed to see a liberal-minded politician attempting to conscript their troops. At the same time, they say that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has done little to court their affections.
"I've never seen anything quite like it before," said evangelical author Stephen Mansfield, who wrote "The Faith of George W. Bush" and has a forthcoming book about Obama.
"To be running against a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, and to be reaching into the Christian community as wisely and knowledgeably as (Obama) is -- understanding their terms and their values -- is just remarkable."
This month, the Illinois senator held a closed-door meeting in Chicago with almost 40 Christian leaders, including evangelical heavyweights such as the Rev. Franklin Graham, publishing magnate Steve Strang and megachurch pastor Bishop T.D. Jakes.
Obama's campaign is also launching a grass-roots effort, tentatively called Joshua Generation, with plans to hold concerts and house meetings targeted at young evangelicals and Catholics.
A political action committee set to launch this month, the Matthew 25 Network, plans to direct radio advertising and mailers to Christian communities while talking up Obama in the media. The group is not officially tied to the Obama campaign.
Obama's emphasis on faith outreach plays to his strengths, campaign observers say. The senator is at ease speaking about religion and preaches a message of forging common ground with disparate communities.
Still, some religious leaders wonder whether Obama's Christian-focused outreach might alienate Jewish and Muslim voters, for example, not to mention the Democratic Party's large secular wing.
"You really have to consider the question: What message does this send to people of other faiths?" said the Rev. Romal J. Tune, a Washington pastor who works on religious outreach with the Democratic National Committee.
Joshua DuBois, Obama's director of faith outreach, said the campaign is "not solely focused" on evangelicals and Catholics but "committed to reaching people of faith broadly and trying to bridge religious divides."
Nonetheless, Obama has clearly learned a lesson from previous, unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidates: Ignore -- or dismiss -- evangelicals at your peril.
Despite the concerted push, Obama faces a tough task in trying to loosen the GOP's hold on a majority of white churchgoers. A recent poll by Calvin College found McCain leading Obama 57 percent to 25 percent among evangelicals and 43 percent to 35 percent among Catholics.
"Right now there's really more continuity than change" among religious voters, said John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "But we're at the beginning of the campaign, and what campaigns try to do is change people's minds."
Obama may have done some of that at the Chicago meeting, which one adviser described as a "Nixon goes to China" moment.
Abortion and gay marriage -- issues on which he openly disagreed with many of the evangelical leaders in the room -- dominated the discussion, according to participants.
Still, Strang wrote in a blog, Obama "won over the loyalties of many."
"He came across as thoughtful and much more of a 'centrist' than I would have expected," Strang wrote, adding that he hopes McCain will host a similar gathering.
Mansfield said he sees similar political acumen in the Joshua Generation program. Often used as a "mobilizing phrase" among evangelical church youth groups, the name refers to the biblical story of Joshua, who did what Moses could not: lead his people into the Promised Land.
"The impressive thing about Obama is that he knows this," Mansfield said. "This is language you expect to hear at a youth rally, not from the presidential campaign of the most liberal member of the Senate."
The Matthew 25 Project, named after the biblical passage in which Jesus promises eternal life for those who care for the least and the lost, will be led by Mara Vanderslice, a young evangelical who briefly led faith outreach for the 2004 campaign of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and later founded a respected political consulting firm.
About 40 people turned up for a $1,000-a-head Washington fundraiser this month to hear about the group's plans for targeting Catholics, moderate evangelicals, Hispanic Catholics and Protestants, Vanderslice said.
The PAC is just one "piece of the faith outreach puzzle," said Mike McCurry, a former press secretary for President Bill Clinton who is advising the project.
"For evangelicals, obviously this is an uphill battle. No one is proposing that we go and win a majority of them," McCurry said. But there are significant numbers of moderate Christians "and we need to reach them."