WASHINGTON (RNS)—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 off guard some conservative evangelicals, who say they are surprised and dismayed to see a progressive-minded politician attempting to conscript their troops. At the same time, they say Sen. John McCain 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 similar 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.”
Recently, the Illinois senator held a closed-door meeting in Chicago with nearly 40 Christian leaders, including evangelical heavyweights like evangelist Franklin Graham, publishing magnate Steve Strang and megachurch pastor T.D. Jakes.
Obama’s campaign also is launching a grass-roots effort, tentatively called Joshua Generation, with plans to hold concerts and house meetings targeted at young evangelicals and Catholics.
Meanwhile, a new political action committee set to launch this summer, 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 if Obama’s Christian-focused outreach may 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 Romal J. Tune, a Washington pastor who works on religious outreach with the Democratic National Committee.
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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.
But Obama may have made inroads at the Chicago meeting with evangelical leaders, which one adviser described as a “Nixon goes to China” moment.
Abortion and gay marriage—issues on which the Illinois Democrat openly disagreed with many of the evangelical leaders in the room—dominated the discussion, participants said.
Still, Strang wrote in a blog, Obama “came across as thoughtful and much more of a ‘centrist’ than I would have expected.” Strang added he hopes McCain will host a similar gathering.
Mansfield sees similar political acumen in the Joshua Generation program. Often used as a “mobilizing phrase” among evangelical church youth groups, the “Joshua Generation” 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.”