Sweet Column: Obama--Democrats have something to say to people of faith.

SHARE Sweet Column: Obama--Democrats have something to say to people of faith.
SHARE Sweet Column: Obama--Democrats have something to say to people of faith.

During the 2004 Illinois Senate race, GOP nominee Alan Keyes, facing certain crushing defeat from rival Barack Obama, suggested that Jesus Christ would not back the Democratic contender.

“And I think you remember my response, which was, I wanted to know who his pollster was,” Obama joked to Fox News host Alan Colmes on Oct. 26, 2004.

(a copy of the speech is in an earlier post)

“Because if I have a chance to talk to Jesus, I’m going to be talking to him about eternal life and the meaning and purpose of my work here. I’m not going to be worrying about who he’s voting for in the Senate race.”

Obama’s lighthearted responses at that time included a quip about not being on the ballot for “Minister of Illinois.”

On Wednesday, Obama revealed that Keyes’ assertions ate at him more than he let on and in a sense prompted some personal soul-searching as the freshman senator pondered the role faith in general — and his in particular — had to do with shaping policy and politics in the United States.

“But Mr. Keyes’ implicit accusation that I was not a true Christian nagged at me, and I was also aware that my answer didn’t adequately address the role my faith has in guiding my own values and beliefs.

Taken from chapter in new book

“My dilemma was by no means unique. In a way, it reflected the broader debate we’ve been having in this country for the last 30 years over the role of religion in politics.”

These reflections came in a keynote address Obama delivered Wednesday to a conference sponsored by Sojourners/Call to Renewal, a liberal evangelical group whose major focus is on fighting poverty in this rich nation.

Obama, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), who also spoke the last few days at the organization’s convention in Washington, all received standing ovations. The group is led by influential Christian thinker and writer the Rev. Jim Wallis. The evangelicals also heard from Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.).

Obama’s speech was adopted from a chapter on faith included in his upcoming book, The Audacity of Hope, to be published in October. While Clinton’s camp treated her speech routinely — her office did not have a copy for release — the Obama team used it as a setting for a major policy address.

The Bush-Cheney re-election campaign paid a lot of attention to evangelicals in 2004 — especially those who stayed home in 2000 — and President Bush won a second term with 76 percent of the evangelicals, according to exit polls.

Obama has an important message about the need for Democrats to reach out to people of faith in America and not make concessions to the right-wingers who claim moral superiority. It’s similar to a campaign for faith-based voters being waged by Dean. Obama’s team also made sure there were messengers to get his message heard.

Obama’s office handed out the speech in advance to wire service reporters so a story would be on the desks of assigning editors when they looked at the morning news roundup from the wires, hopefully influencing their coverage decisions. Interviews on CNN and Fox were booked before he even gave the speech. Wednesday night, Obama was scheduled for another interview on Fox’s “Hannity and Colmes.” Today, Obama will be on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and CNN’s “American Morning.”

‘A choice and not an epiphany’

Religion is no small matter to Barack Hussein Obama. But it has not always been that way.

“I was not raised in a particularly religious household. My father, who returned to Kenya when I was just 2, was Muslim but as an adult became an atheist. My mother, whose parents were non-practicing Baptists and Methodists, grew up with a healthy skepticism of organized religion herself. As a consequence, I did, too.

“It wasn’t until after college, when I went to Chicago to work as a community organizer for a group of Christian churches, that I confronted my own spiritual dilemma,” he said. His embrace of Christianity was “a choice and not an epiphany,” and his spiritual home is Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

All too often, the “values vote” is seen as Republican. Democrats have been trying for years to make the conversation broader — not just about gay marriage or posting the Ten Commandments in a public place, but about the morality of budget choices Congress makes every day. Obama goes a little further in making the suggestion that “voluntary student prayer groups” in school “should not be a threat.”

Or as Obama put it, “In other words, if we don’t reach out to evangelical Christians and other religious Americans and tell them what we stand for, Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons will continue to hold sway.”

Read the entire Obama speech on faith at my blog: http://blogs.suntimes.com/sweet/

Copyright The Sun-Times Company

All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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