Obama Works to Win Evangelicals Back for Democrats

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama talks with Renee Montagne about his call for Democrats to reach out to evangelical Christians. Republicans have long laid claim to that powerful voting block. He believes that Democrats can win them back with issues like the drive to end poverty.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Any politician knows the power of evangelical Christians on Election Day. Traditionally, it's been Republicans who have laid claim to that powerful voting block. Now Democratic Senator Barack Obama is calling on his party to reach out to Evangelicals. He did so, at a recent speech to Call to Renewal - that's a group of churches and faith based organizations working to end poverty.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in people's lives, in the lives of the American people. I think it's time that we joined a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern pluralistic society.

MONTAGNE: As part of our occasional conversations on the role of faith in our democracy, we turn to Senator Obama, who joins us from his office on Capitol Hill. Good morning.

Sen. OBAMA: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Throughout our history, a politician's faith and how it influences his politics has been a thorny issue, mostly for the politician himself or herself. Why have you chosen this moment to wade into this issue?

Sen. OBAMA: Well, I think there's an interesting opportunity right now, Renee, partly because you're starting to see changes in leadership within the evangelical community. You know, the traditional fire and brimstone leaders, the Jerry Falwells and the Pat Robertsons, are starting to give way to leaders like Rick Warren or TD Jakes, who, you know, still have conservative views when it comes to certain social issues, but are also opening up to issues like environmentalism or Darfur, the AIDS crisis in Africa.

And part of what I've wanted to make sure of is that those of us who consider ourselves progressive, that we are not somehow abandoning the opportunity to work with people of all faiths to bring about American renewal.

MONTAGNE: So are you talking, for instance, about, say, reaching out to very conservative Republican center, like Sam Brownback from Kansas, who sort of, on the one hand, led the charge on stopping the killing in Darfur, on slavery in Sudan, on helping persecuted Christians in - escape North Korea, and yet on the other hand he's a very, very strong and fierce opponent of a woman's right to choose abortion?

Sen. OBAMA: Well, I think Sam Brownback is a perfect example of the contradictory strains that we have in this country when it comes to faith and what those obligations are. And Sam Brownback and I are not going to agree on abortion. We're not going to agree on a constitutional amendment for gay marriage. But he and I are the two chief co-sponsors on a bill dealing with Darfur.

And more than just the specific issue is involved, part of my intent in the speech was to figure out how can we stop using religion as a divisive force in the body politic and how can we tap into that sense that our values, our deepest moral commitments can be harnessed in order to bring about changes that might have seemed impossible if you were just looking at the realities of the here and now.

MONTAGNE: How does a Democrat, and especially one like yourself around who there has been speculation about your own ambitions, presidential ambitions, how do you deal with the suspicion that comes a Democrat's way when he or she speaks openly about their faith?

Sen. OBAMA: The suspicion that it is a calculated political move? Is that...

MONTAGNE: Yeah. Yeah.

Sen. OBAMA: Well, you know, one of the wonderful things about coming to Washington is realizing that everything you do is perceived as calculation. So I, you know, I can't really spend a lot of time worrying about how my words are interpreted. All I can do is make those words as true as possible.

MONTAGNE: But do you think that talking about your faith, or talking about one's faith for another, say, Democrat would have political value?

Sen. OBAMA: You know, what I think is that Democrats need to show up. I think it's important that we don't just abandon the field. If we are present in those forums and we're engaged in a debate about our commitments when it comes to the poor or our belief that, you know, we're all sinners, and, you know, we might want to look at the speck in our eye before we look at the speck in somebody else's eye, we're looking at the log our own, then, you know, potentially at least, people start broadening their conceptions of faith.

MONTAGNE: What are the issues that a shared religious commitment - people could come together over?

Sen. OBAMA: It is entirely possible for liberals and conservatives to say we are concerned about poverty in the inner city, rather than resort to a either-or approach in which the conservatives argue for personal responsibility and the liberals argue for government programs. There's no potential contradiction there. It's just that, you know, the way our debate has been structured, the sense is that you can't think about personal morality and public morality at the same time. And I think there are a whole host of issues, whether it's how we deal with our children to how we deal with our environment, the stewardship we provide, in which we can potentially forge some working coalitions that actually get some things done.

MONTAGNE: Democratic Senator Barack Obama spoke to us from his office on Capitol Hill.

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