LYNN NEARY, host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Lynn Neary. Liane Hansen is on assignment.
This weekend, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has been trying to defend a controversial comment. He had said that working class voters can become bitter about politics, and when they do, he said they may, quote, "cling to guns or religion."
Yesterday in Muncie, Indiana, Obama admitted his words may have been poorly chosen.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): I didn't say it as well as I should have.
NEARY: But he argued that the essence of what he said was right.
Sen. OBAMA: I said something that everybody knows is true, which is that there are a whole bunch of folks who are bitter; they are angry. So I said, well, you know, when you're bitter you turn to what you can count on. So people, they vote about guns or they take comfort from their faith and their family and their community. That's a natural response.
NEARY: Obama's comment drew fire from John McCain's camp on the Republican side, and his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton called the characterization demeaning.
Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): The people of faith I know don't cling to religion because they're bitter. People embrace faith not because they are materially poor but because they are spiritually rich.
NEARY: All of this should come into sharp focus tonight at Messiah College, an evangelical Christian school near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Clinton and Obama plan to be there to discuss public policy and faith.
And as NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, Obama's rhetoric connects with religious themes in a way that's rare for a Democratic candidate.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: In 2004, the Democrats had a religion problem. John Kerry, a committed Catholic, almost never talked about his faith, while George W. Bush spoke about it all the time. Then one night during the Democratic National Convention, a young U.S. Senate candidate named Barack Obama broke the zone of silence.
Sen. OBAMA: The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states - red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I've got news for them too: we worship an awesome God in the blue states.
HAGERTY: It was a remarkable moment for Democrats who were tired of being cast as the godless party. Shaun Casey, who teaches theology at Wesley Theological Seminary, was watching.
Mr. SHAUN CASEY (Wesley Theological Seminary): I thought how brilliant because that's a trope from a contemporary Christian song that's sung in white evangelical churches; it's sung in African-American churches. You know, our God is an awesome God. So if you knew if the code, it's like this guy is not the typical secular Democrat.
(Soundbite of song, "Awesome God")
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Our God is an awesome God, he reigns from heaven above…
HAGERTY: Casey, who now advises Obama's campaign on religion issues, says Obama quickly made his personal beliefs central to his presidential campaign. He peppered his speeches with references to his faith and to Scripture. Here's a speech he gave to the United Church of Christ last June describing how, as a 20-something secular community organizer, he knelt before the cross and became a Christian.
Sen. OBAMA: I felt I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to his will and dedicated myself to discovering his truths and carrying out his works.
HAGERTY: It's this story of his adult conversion, something he shares with President Bush, that attracts even some white evangelicals despite his liberal pro-choice politics.
Mr. MICHAEL GERSON (Former Speechwriter, President Bush): When I speak with evangelical young people there's a real openness to Obama.
HAGERTY: Michael Gerson, who's an evangelical himself, was President Bush's speechwriter and was known for crafting the president's lofty religious rhetoric.
Mr. GERSON: He speaks an authentic language of faith rooted in his own conversion experience. He specifically rejects a kind of simplistic secularization as a message that somehow religion has nothing to do with politics. And so I think there is an authentic appeal there.
HAGERTY: Gerson says he hears in Obama's speeches the theological activism and optimism of Martin Luther King. He also hears the realism of Reinhold Niebuhr, the 20th century Protestant theologian who believed that society will never be perfect because of human sinfulness.
But the chief influence in Obama's spiritual odyssey is his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Obama titled his second book after Wright's 1985 sermon:
Mr. JEREMIAH WRIGHT (Former Pastor, United Church of Christ): Have the audacity to hope for that child of yours, for that husband of yours, for that home of yours, for that homosexual of yours, for that God-filled life of yours. Keep on hoping. Keep on praying. Keep on waiting and you may sing like my grandmamma. There's a bright side somewhere.
HAGERTY: Wright has also become Obama's Achilles Heel. Recently some controversial excerpts from Wright's sermons have brought Obama condemnation from conservative pundits and some voters. Obama has rejected those statements. But Anthony Pinn, a religion professor at Rice University, says Obama has absorbed Wright's emphasis on the social gospel, which focuses on Jesus' commands to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and free the oppressed.
Professor ANTHONY PINN (Religion, Rice University): There are ways in which Reverend Wright models for Senator Obama a certain take on the social gospel, a certain type of engagement, the need for Christians to roll up their sleeves and be involved in community activities. I think he gets that in part from Reverend Wright.
Sen. OBAMA: My faith teaches me that I can sit in church and pray all I want but I won't be fulfilling God's will unless I go out and do the Lord's work.
HAGERTY: But Obama's rhetoric combines a social gospel with language often heard in white evangelical churches, says Sean Casey. Emphasizing personal morality, a relationship with Jesus, redemption and salvation. Casey says Obama often toggles between the plight of the poor and talk of his own transformed soul.
Mr. CASEY: You don't have the classic split in his life that you do in many versions of Christianity where it's either all social justice and no personal redemption or it's all personal redemption and no social justice. He wants to hold those two together.
HAGERTY: For example, in 2006, Obama told a group of liberal evangelicals that he believes in restricting guns in the inner cities.
Sen. OBAMA: But I also believe that when a gangbanger shoots indiscriminately into a crowd because he feels somebody has disrespected him, we've got a moral problem. There's a hole in that young man's heart, and a hole that the government alone cannot fix.
HAGERTY: As a black politician, though, Obama echoes some of Martin Luther King's rhetoric, if not his preacher style. He uses code words from King, like the beloved country. He quotes black spirituals. He also includes biblical allusions to David and Goliath, Daniel and the lions and, of course, the promised land, as King did here in this 1957 speech.
Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. (Civil Rights Leader): Moses might not get to see Canaan but his children will see it. He even got to the mountaintop enough to see it and that assured him that it was coming. But the beauty of the thing is that there's always a Joshua to take up his work and take the children on in.
HAGERTY: Joshua was a man appointed to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land, and Obama has appropriated that mantle. He did so in an address in Selma, Alabama, with famous civil rights leaders, like John Lewis, sitting in the audience.
Sen. OBAMA: The previous generation, the Moses generation, pointed the way. They took us 90 percent of the way there but we still got that ten percent in order to cross over to the other side. And so the question, I guess, that I have today is what's called of us in this Joshua generation?
Unidentified Woman: Amen.
HAGERTY: Obama casts himself as a transition figure, one who can move the country into a land unity and racial harmony or at least less division. Obama hopes his message will appeal to religious people of all stripes, or enough of them to win the White House.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.