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James Dobson is founder of Focus on the Family, an evangelical Christian group based in Colorado Springs, Colo.
James Dobson is founder of Focus on the Family, an evangelical Christian group based in Colorado Springs, Colo. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Two years ago, in his now famous "Call to Renewal" speech, Sen. Barack Obama sent a rallying cry to liberal Christians: You, too, have something to contribute to politics, he said. You cannot cede the ground to religious conservatives, he added.
The future Democratic presidential candidate told the group that the United States is a highly diverse nation, and no one religious belief has a monopoly on moral values. Even within Christianity, he said, there are many ways to apply the Bible's moral principles.
"Would we go with James Dobson's [interpretation] or Al Sharpton's?" Obama asked the cheering crowd, referring to the two widely different religious leaders. "Which passages of Scripture would guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which says that slavery is OK but eating shell fish is an abomination... Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount — a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application?"
On Tuesday, James Dobson — a prominent evangelical leader — took exception to Obama's 2006 speech.
"I think he's deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own world view, his own confused theology," Dobson said on his Focus on the Family radio program, which claims 200 million listeners worldwide.
For 18 minutes, Dobson excoriated Obama for his political stands — especially Obama's belief that a politician must take into account a variety of views on moral issues.
"Now that is a fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution," Dobson said. "This is why we have elections. To support what we believe to be wise and moral. We don't have to go to the lowest common denominator of morality, which is what he is suggesting."
Not surprisingly, Shaun Casey, who advises Obama on religious issues, argues that the candidate's view is a mainstream interpretation of the Constitution. Casey says Dobson's criticism is not really about theology. On the one hand, Casey says, Dobson is frustrated that Republicans chose John McCain as their nominee, a man whom Dobson has said publicly he will not vote for.
"And I think on the other hand, he's frustrated that Sen. Obama's outreach to evangelicals seems to be getting some traction at the grass-roots level, as well as among a number of prominent evangelical leaders," he adds.
Earlier this month, for example, Obama met with more than a dozen evangelical leaders, including Franklin Graham and T.D. Jakes. Several said they walked away impressed with Obama's faith. And polls suggest that many younger, moderate evangelicals are interested in Obama.
Michael Cromartie, an evangelical and vice president at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, sees a political signal in Dobson's words.
"It's the beginning of what we might call the religion wars in the 2008 campaign," he says.
He says Dobson's criticism is unlikely to keep his listeners from voting for Obama. They weren't going to for the Illinois Democrat anyway.
But, Cromartie notes, "It should at least concern the Obama campaign that one of the leading leaders of the religious conservative movement in America, who has a huge and vast mailing list and radio program, has sort of been awakened from his slumber."
And he is now aggressively campaigning against Obama — and perhaps mobilizing the conservative vote.