STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Senators Barack Obama and John McCain appear together next week. They are both going to be at the Saddleback mega-church in Lake Forest, California, where the pastor is Rick Warren. Joint appearances by the presumed nominees of the major parties are rare, to say the least, and this one shows both parties are working hard to court the votes of white evangelical Christians. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson has more.
MARA LIASSON: In the competition for white evangelical votes this year, there's been a role reversal. It's the Democrat, Barack Obama, who's comfortable quoting Scripture and talking openly about his beliefs.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): When working as a community organizer with other churches, helping to build struggling neighborhoods, I let Jesus Christ into my life. I learned that my sins could be redeemed.
LIASSON: John McCain, on the other hand, is more reluctant to talk about his own faith, and he's had rocky relations with religious conservatives. But McCain is a believer, and he has a powerful story about the time his own faith was tested. It was when he was being tortured as a prisoner of war.
One Christmas morning, he was allowed out of his cell for a few moments. As he stood alone in the prison courtyard, one of the Vietnamese guards - who had shown some small kindness to McCain in the past - walked up to him.
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): Then with his sandal, the guard drew a cross in the dirt. We stood wordlessly there for a minute or two, venerating the cross, until the guard rubbed it out and walked away. To me, that was faith - a faith that unites and never divides, a faith that bridges unbridgeable gaps in humanity. It's the faith that we are all equal and endowed by our creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It's the faith I would die to defend.
LIASSON: But that story is often about all McCain will say about his faith, much to the chagrin of his evangelical supporters.
Barack Obama, on the other hand, is making an all-out push to court religious voters. Here's an ad being run by an independent political action committee supporting Obama called Matthew 25.
(Soundbite of ad)
Unidentified Woman: But in Luke, Jesus taught us that we must listen to what a man says because out of the overflow of his heart, his mouth speaks. So here are words from Senator Obama's heart.
Sen. OBAMA: Kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt that I heard God's spirit beckoning me.
LIASSON: Obama has also promised to expand President Bush's faith-based initiative, and during the primaries, Obama distributed leaflets with headings like Committed Christian and Called to Christ.
Mr. STEVE WALDMAN (Beliefnet): Their efforts to show Obama to be a religious man are not subtle.
LIASSON: That's Steve Waldman, the founder and editor-in-chief of Beliefnet, a popular Web site dedicated to spirituality. Waldman says Obama's emphasis on faith is even more aggressive than that of George W. Bush, but that it's not entirely aimed at religious voters.
Mr. WALDMAN: If Obama can show himself to be a person of faith, it also helps him combat the idea that he's an elitist, that he's not a mainstream American. Because if he shows that he prays and he's a churchgoing guy and he's a religious guy, that's a very mainstream characteristic.
LIASSON: The irony of a liberal Democrat showcasing his faith is not lost on Gary Bauer, a leading conservative religious activist.
Mr. GARY BAUER: Let me just point out, all the things that when Republicans do them, your colleagues in the media are all over them for exploiting religion, and yet when Obama does it, it's considered refreshing and he's competitive.
LIASSON: But religion and politics can be a combustible mix. For John McCain, it's sometimes been an exploding cigar. This year, McCain accepted the endorsements of fundamentalist pastors Rod Parsley and John Hagee. But after it was discovered that Parsley called Islam evil and Hagee said the Holocaust was part of God's plan for the Jews, McCain had to reject their endorsements.
Sen. MCCAIN: I didn't attend their church for 20 years, and I'm not a member of their church. I received their endorsement, which did not mean that I endorsed their views. But the comments made most recently by Pastor Hagee are just too much.
LIASSON: In that statement, McCain was reminding voters about the 20 years Obama spent in a Chicago church led by Reverend Jeremiah Wright, whose many controversial remarks included accusations that the government created the AIDS epidemic to kill blacks. And finally Obama too had to cut his ties to Wright.
Sen. OBAMA: His comments were not only divisive and destructive, but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate.
LIASSON: The Wright episode planted seeds of doubt about Obama in the minds of many voters, and the rejection of Hagee and Parsley reopened some old wounds between McCain and evangelicals. But Dr. Richard Land, a Southern Baptist leader, says McCain still has a good chance with those voters.
Dr. RICHARD LAND: What I hear a lot from Southern Baptist pastors and lay people is a variation of this sort of theme: John McCain was not my first choice, John McCain was not my second choice, but I'll take a third class fireman over a first class arsonist. And when it comes to the issue of life, when it comes to the issue of marriage, they perceive Barack Obama as a first class arsonist.
LIASSON: Land thinks in the end they will vote for McCain. But Gary Bauer worries about something else. McCain needs a committed army of volunteers - the kind George W. Bush found in the evangelical community four years ago. Every day, Bauer says, he sends out an e-mail to a quarter of a million Christian activists.
Mr. BAUER: I've noticed in my - in the feedback from my own daily reports that if I go back three months ago, there was a large number of people saying, Gary, there's just no way I can do this. And now people are saying we've got to elect him, and how do I volunteer? So that gap is going to close too. But whether it closes quickly enough over the next hundred days remains to be seen.
LIASSON: In 2004, George W. Bush got 78 percent of the evangelical vote. John Kerry got only 22 percent. Right now, says Steve Waldman, polls show McCain has about 60 percent - about 10 points behind where Bush was at this point in 2004; Obama has about 25 percent, a little better than where Kerry ended up.
Mr. WALDMAN: What the polls are showing in terms of evangelicals is that John McCain has lost a bunch of them compared to George Bush, but that Barack Obama has not yet gotten them. He has an opportunity that Democrats haven't had in a long time, but he has not yet succeeded in bringing them over.
LIASSON: So at least some of these voters are up for grabs, and in the next few weeks, Obama will be stepping up his efforts to get them. He'll be launching a new outreach project aimed at younger evangelicals with community service projects, house parties and Christian rock concerts. Joshua DuBois is Obama's national director of religious affairs.
Mr. JOSHUA DUBOIS: We are pretty humble in this outreach. We certainly don't plan on winning outright the evangelical vote, but we do believe that more Americans of faith, including evangelicals and modern mainline Protestants and modern conservative Catholics, will give Senator Obama a hard look and will end up supporting him.
LIASSON: No one expects Obama to even get half the evangelical vote. But just breaking 30 percent would be a kind of miracle for a Democrat. The last Democrat to do so was Bill Clinton, a Southern Baptist who got 32 percent of the white evangelical vote in 1992. It may not be a coincidence that he was also the last Democrat elected president.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.