Obama's Play for the Faithful

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama after speaking at a church service in Selma, Ala.

It's safe to say there's no page in the Democratic handbook that recommends sitting down with several dozen right-of-center Christian leaders one week after clinching the party's presidential nomination. So the fact that Barack Obama slipped away Tuesday afternoon to a borrowed Chicago law-firm conference room for some prayer and frank talk about his faith and to face some tough questioning from heavy hitters in the Evangelical, Catholic and mainline Protestant worlds could be the clearest sign yet that he really does intend to practice a different kind of politics. But it's undoubtedly also a signal that he recognizes the damage done to his campaign by a spring that featured the Jeremiah Wright show and rumors about his true religious leanings — and ended with a decision to leave his church.

Among those gathered on Tuesday were African-American preachers like T.D. Jakes, Hispanic pastors like Sam Rodriguez and a few conservative Catholics like Pepperdine professor Doug Kmiec, who has been denied Communion because of his public support for Obama. But the majority of attendees were white Evangelical leaders, including one conservative member of Evangelical royalty, Franklin Graham.

"The purpose was not to line up endorsements," says one Obama aide. "But some very important Evangelicals left this meeting impressed. I think they'll go back to their enclaves telling an interesting story." The nearly two-hour-long meeting opened and closed with prayer. For the balance of the time, Obama spoke about his faith journey — a topic that he has written and spoken about extensively but that was new to many of those present — and fielded sometimes pointed questions.

"It never got heated," says another Obama adviser, "but these issues are tough. Abortion is going to come up. Three or four times, in fact." But while the topic of abortion is often a conversation ender or results in a terse decision to "agree to disagree," this group wanted to get at real answers, asking Obama to explain how he thought through the issue as a Christian. They also talked about poverty, health care and Darfur, among other concerns. "When he talked about trying to bring people together on poverty or abortion reduction," says one participant, "there were a lot of nods in the room, even from some traditional Evangelicals who are frustrated with the lack of progress."

The conversation became most personal when Obama talked about the decision he and his family made just a few weeks ago to leave Trinity United Church of Christ, where he has worshiped for almost 20 years. The move has been dissected in the press as mostly a matter of political calculation. But the pastors seemed supportive of Obama, understanding the difficulty of leaving a religious home. "That crowd got it better than anybody," says an Obama aide.

Several of the Evangelicals who were present say that despite their differences with Obama, the vigorous discussion was a welcome break from the tepid theological inquiry that has existed during the Bush years. "Obama is not some neophyte who is intimidated by the prospect of conversation with religious leaders on these matters," says Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals. "That makes it a lot of fun, because the country desperately needs the capacity to carry on a conversation about religion and politics in a way that is affirming of people's differences."

The meeting ended on a positive note, with many of the leaders thanking the candidate for bringing them together. Some of the most conservative seemed especially surprised that a Democratic nominee would seek out a conversation with them. A smaller group even walked back to the candidate's headquarters in downtown Chicago to tour the office and pick up some bumper stickers.

Throughout the Democratic primaries, Obama consistently lost white Evangelical and Catholic voters to Hillary Clinton, raising questions about his ability to appeal to those constituencies in the general election. However, two polls conducted in May appear to indicate otherwise — at least in terms of support for John McCain among those voters. A Gallup survey released last week showed him pulling even with McCain among Catholics, and a Calvin College poll revealed anemic Evangelical support for McCain (57%, compared with 72% who voted for George W. Bush in 2004). Even so, Obama's relationship with religious voters remains a concern for his campaign.

To Obama's advisers, the John Kerry campaign is a cautionary tale of what happens when a candidate allows his opponent to define his faith. Which is why the Obama campaign has a senior religion adviser, a Catholic outreach director, half a dozen religion interns and just announced it is bringing aboard an aide to focus on Evangelical outreach (it is expected to be Shaun Casey, professor of ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary). The campaign has also announced an effort to reach younger religious voters and will probably benefit from the work of a new PAC — called Matthew 25 — launched this week to rally Christian support for Obama.

The candidate's advisers believe that if he can improve on Kerry's standing among white Evangelical voters by 5 to 10 points in November (essentially returning to Bill Clinton's level of support in the 1990s), he will win the election. And he might have a chance of doing that. More and more Evangelicals have broadened their list of priorities to include issues like the environment, the economy and health care. They're as frustrated about the war in Iraq as most Americans. And when they look at the G.O.P. — and especially McCain — they no longer see a solid political home. The fact that many Evangelicals consider the 2008 election a real choice has to give Obama hope.

At the same time, another lesson of 2004 looms large. The Kerry campaign was unprepared when Republicans went after what they had assumed would be their strength — Kerry's military service. And that may be the real reason Obama is wasting no time in reaching out personally to religious leaders and their constituencies. He may be the only Democrat who could hold those conversations. And he may also be the only Democrat who has no choice but to do so.