One of the hardest things to do is to cover an important "off the record" meeting that takes behind closed doors. We had a very important meeting that kind more than a week ago in Chicago, between Barack Obama and 40-plus Catholic, evangelical and oldline Protestant leaders. I was going to write about it immediately here at GetReligion, but then pulled back when (a) I began getting interesting emails about what happened in the meeting and (b) some participants began blogging about their impressions of the meeting, while still refraining from quoting Obama's comments.
It didn't take me long to decide that I wanted to write about the event myself in my Scripps Howard News Service column.
But let's back up a second. Here is a major chunk from the top of the solid, informative Associated Press report by Charles Babington, from which I quote while praying that our nation's fair use and commentary laws are still in effect.
Barack Obama discussed Darfur, the Iraq war, gay rights, abortion and other issues Tuesday with Christian leaders, including conservatives who have been criticized for praising the Democratic presidential candidate.
Bishop T.D. Jakes, a prominent black clergyman who heads a Dallas megachurch, said Obama took questions, listened to participants and discussed his "personal journey of faith." The discussion "went absolutely everywhere," Jakes told The Associated Press, and "just about every Christian stripe was represented in that room." ...
Jakes said the meeting, at a law firm's offices, seemed designed to prompt a wide discussion rather than to result in commitments from either Obama or those attending. Others familiar with the meeting said some participants agreed to attend only because it would be private.
Who called the meeting? Who attended?
Joshua Dubois, the Obama campaign's director of faith outreach, said the meeting included "prominent evangelicals and other faith leaders" who "discussed policy issues and came together in conversation and prayer." Similar sessions will occur "in the months to come," he said.
About 30 people attended, the campaign said, but it released only three names: the Rev. Stephen Thurston, head of the National Baptist Convention of America, Inc., a historically black denomination; the Rev. T. Dewitt Smith, president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc., which was home to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders; and Bishop Phillip Robert Cousin Sr., an A.M.E. clergyman and former NAACP board member.
Two sources familiar with the meeting, but who spoke on background because the session was private, said others attending included conservative Catholic constitutional lawyer Doug Kmiec; evangelical author Max Lucado of San Antonio; Cameron Strang, founder of Relevant Media, which is aimed at young Christians; the Rev. Luis Cortes of Esperanza USA; and Paul Corts, president of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities.
Now, regular GetReligion readers will notice that the last name in that list -- Paul Corts -- is my boss. I quickly emailed him on the road to confirm that he was not talking to anyone about the meeting. He already knew that some people were talking about the questions that they asked behind the closed doors, as opposed to the answers that Obama gave.
If you want to start unpacking the online diary of this session you can start with the always candid John Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network, whose blog has become must reading for open-minded people on the left as well as the right. You can't say that about many religious conservatives. The man is a gaining clout in this town, Click here and then here to read his take.
From Brody, you can head over to NPR.org to see more of the fall out. As a GetReligion reader noted in a private email:
... NPR's "All Things Considered" covered Obama's meeting with prominent evangelical leaders. Listen to it. The reporter, David Brody, senior national correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network, knows his stuff. My head spun as he named names and listed off where each attendee stands in the political spectrum, making a point of the generally "moderate" leanings of most attendees. The anchor, Michelle Norris was clearly not keeping up. And then, THEN, less than 10 minutes later, the top-of-the-hour news recapped the story with the standard "Obama Meets with Conservative Christian Leaders." I thought to myself that NPR news should should consider looking at NPR's other thoughtful programing as a source for its reporting.
Precisely. This was a meeting that involved some conservative evangelicals, some centrists and then lots of "progressive" evangelicals of various kinds, which means people who are progressive on a variety of different issues from one another. Confused? That's the point. Then there were Catholic leaders and people from Obama's own world, the Protestant churches of the left.
But it was the reaching-out-to-evangelicals angle that had legs, obviously.
If that is what interests you, then read the text and the subtext of this weblog post by Steve Strang, the founder of Charisma Magazine, a major voice on the Pentecostal/charismatic side of evangelicalism. Here is a part that will tick off many on the left, until they read more closely:
I returned from the meeting very concerned. Here is a liberal -- Obama -- reaching out to the Christian community at a time the conservative -- Sen. John McCain -- seems to be distancing himself from the so-called "Christian Right." I think McCain has a lot of work to do to get the support of the Christian community. Obama seemed to have the support of at least half of the 43 leaders who attended the Chicago meeting. And in my opinion, he "made points" with the rest. The tone of the meeting was respectful and generally upbeat.
I was curious to see who would attend. They wouldn't release a list of invitees ahead of time. It turns out my son Cameron, who founded Relevant Media Group, was also invited. But neither of us knew this until I copied him with an email saying I intended to go, and he told me he was also attending.
The invitation to the meeting stated, "This is an off-the-record (no media) time for questioning and listening, with no expectation of endorsement."
Strang asked the big question: How did Obama square his stance on abortion with his Christian commitment. It was an obvious question, yet Obama had to know it would be asked -- since the room contains pro-life liberals as well as pro-life conservatives.
What happened next? Here is my summary from my Scripps column:
Strang said Obama offered a surprisingly "centrist," 15-minute answer. Since the evangelical entrepreneur had read Obama's "Audacity of Hope" memoir, he recognized that the response came from its "Faith" chapter.
Thus, it's likely that the presumptive Democratic nominee retold the story of the University of Chicago doctor who gently challenged a statement on a U.S. Senate campaign Web site pledging that Obama would fight "right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose." The doctor's e-mail said he wasn't asking Obama to oppose abortion, but to begin addressing "this issue in fair-minded words."
Obama told his staff to drop the offensive language, in recognition of the fact that many abortion opponents want sincere, sober discussions instead of more shouting. About that time, a member of a polite, pro-life family protesting outside an Obama rally called out: "I will pray for you. I will pray that you have a change of heart."
Thus, Obama wrote: "Neither my mind nor my heart changed that day, nor did they in the days to come. But I did have that family in mind as I wrote back to the doctor and thanked him for his e-mail. ... I said a prayer of my own -- that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me."
I also found another quote in my copy of "Audacity" that, well, seemed to fit the content of some of the emails that were flying around containing all kinds of rumors about what Obama did or did not say about this issue. Thus, I wrote -- very carefully -- the following:
... (Abortion) remains a high hurdle in an era when several U.S. Supreme Court justices are near retirement.
Is change possible? In "The Audacity of Hope," Obama noted that many opponents of abortion are willing to "bend principle" in cases of rape and incest. Meanwhile, the willingness of "even the most ardent" of pro-abortion-rights advocates to "accept some restrictions on late-term abortion marks a recognition that a fetus is more than a body part."
There are all kinds of other reports out there, including this newsy blog item from the Chicago Sun-Times. Then there is an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune, by a Catholic who attended. Who knows, we may even hear from Christianity Today, which has stressed that there are young evangelical votes that are up for grabs.
That's all for now. If half of what I have seen in emails is true, this meeting may make big headlines somehow, someday. It's really hard to know for sure, when the doors are shut, yet the World Wide Web is wide open. Let us know what you see, if it's on the record.