Obama courts the faithful

believersforbarackWith the mainstream media's obsession with Gov. Sarah Palin, they haven't really had as much time to look at the other candidates in the race. But I wanted to look at a few stories coming out of the campaign of Sen. Barack Obama. The first is a report from the Roanoke Times. The report describes a series of small Democratic rallies with religious themes:

In Pulaski, the "Faith, Family & Values" tour drew two dozen Democratic supporters to the Masonic Lodge, where Shaun Casey, a professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., said Obama continues to face the challenge of overcoming false rumors he's a Muslim.

Casey said his mother, who lives in Kentucky, still gets e-mails that allege Obama is a Muslim who will reveal his true religion only when he wins the White House. "That is still an active story line" in Southwest Virginia, Casey said.

How come nobody ever sends me these emails? I would feel left out if I didn't feel so lucky. Also, how come I get dozens of e-mails with Palin rumors every day? And how can I make them stop? Anyway, the article mentions that Obama supporters reaching out to Christians in rural Virginia meet resistance over the campaign's support for abortion rights.

Casey said that the Democratic platform -- essentially the party's mission statement drafted at the August convention in Denver -- contains a "commitment to reducing abortions" by bettering the nation's economy so that expectant mothers of modest means will feel more confident about the financial challenges of delivering their babies.

That solution doesn't satisfy the likes of Matt Staver, dean of Liberty University School of Law in Lynchburg and founder of Liberty Counsel, a law firm specializing in church-state issues: "I think what's of concern to evangelical voters are Obama's incontrovertible views on life and values that just don't connect with them."

Staver cited Obama's response to a question from the Rev. Rick Warren in a nationally televised interview in August about when life begins -- that it's "above my pay grade." Staver said, "For the president to say that when life begins for a baby is above his pay grade is incomprehensible."

Unless it's in a section I haven't read, "commitment" to reducing abortions might be a bit of an overstatement. The Democratic Party platform supports "access" to family planning services and comprehensive sex ed and says that such programs "help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and thereby also reduce the need for abortions." To be sure, from the perspective of pro-life Democrats, this marked a significant improvement. Of course, pro-choice Democrats also thought the platform was changed in their favor to make the moral case for abortion.

The other point is that Obama was never asked by Warren when life begins. He was asked when human rights begin. Why is this so difficult for people to get right?

Still, it's nice to see a story that looks at actual religious outreach efforts and how they are playing with various voters.

Michelle Obama herself did some faith and values outreach at the National Baptist Convention in Dayton. The Dayton Daily News was there:

Michelle Obama, wife of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, urged nearly 4,000 Baptists today, Sept. 10 at the Duke Energy Center that the 2008 General Election "is going to change the world."

But in order for that to happen, people must get out and vote. Time is running out, she said.

"Barack can't win without you, and he can't lead without you," Michelle Obama said. "We have less than two months between now and election day. So every day every hour counts."

The report, which describes an electric atmosphere, also includes this intriguing quote: believersforbarack2

"We are in these days witnessing the making of history," said William J. Shaw, president of the National Baptist Convention, USA. "We do not call the senator and his wife Jesus, but in his candidacy, the hopes of generations are finding expression. And in that same candidacy, the fears of many are finding fresh life. But it is our prayer always, that hope overrides fear.

Mrs. Obama spoke in very personal religious terms about how she and her husband have felt Obama supporters' prayers. It's an interesting piece and I was frankly surprised the appearance, which occurred last week, didn't receive more coverage. Campaigning to religious groups seems like a big deal, no matter who is doing it. I can't quite figure out why there was so little interest in the event.

There was another interesting and barely covered story about religious outreach from the Obama campaign, this from CNN:

The Obama campaign is preparing rolling out a new line of "faith merchandise" -- the latest move in an ambitious effort to win over religious voters. . . .

Both campaigns have been making a major push for the Catholic vote, which has gone to the winning presidential campaign in every race since 1976, except Al Gore's 2000 White House bid.

There are Believers for Barack and Catholics for Obama buttons and bumper stickers on the site. They're planning to offer "Clergy for Change" and "Pro-Israel, Pro-Obama" merchandise as well. Christianity Today noticed that a button with an icthys was offered and then removed.

All of these stories are helpful in the larger discussion of Obama's religious outreach. As we prepare for the next Pew poll release that will compare religious support this year with religious support from four years ago, hopefully we can get a bit more substance in the stories. How is Catholic outreach going? What is affecting Catholic voting decisions? How are evangelicals responding to the two campaigns? Is there any movement toward Obama among white evangelicals? Is this group more enthusiastic toward McCain now that he's picked his VP? And if we see any movement, could we learn more about why?

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