Barack Obama: Putting faith out front
How the Illinois senator came to embrace religion in his life.
(Page 3 of 4)
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After law school, Obama returned to Chicago to register low-income voters for the 1992 presidential election. He worked as a civil rights lawyer and as a lecturer at University of Chicago Law School before his election to the Illinois state Senate in 1996.
From the moment he took the national stage, at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama, then running for US Senate, made no secret of his spiritual bent. "We worship an awesome God in the blue states," he said in a keynote address credited with launching his stardom.
But for a liberal Democrat and former constitutional law instructor, the plea for a broader public role for religion has at times required some fancy footwork.
He has called for both "a politics of conscience" based on ecumenical religious values and a clear line between church and state. He has both invoked God in his denunciations of the Iraq war and criticized President Bush for using religious terms like "good" and "evil" to justify it.
"The danger of using good versus evil in the context of war is it may lead us to be not as critical as we should be about our own actions," he said at a candidates' forum on religion last month, calling the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the treatment of suspected terrorists at the Guantánamo Bay prison camp "unjust."
Obama and his advisers have said that his faith has motivated legislation meant to benefit the poor, the uninsured, and minorities. In the Illinois state Senate, Father Pfleger recalls, Obama sponsored measures to clamp down on high-interest "payday loans" in poor neighborhoods and to require Illinois police agencies to record the race of motorists they stop as part of a state effort to monitor racial profiling. He also pressed for a bill requiring police to videotape interrogations of murder suspects, as a safeguard against coerced confessions.
At a speech last month at the annual Hampton University Ministers' Conference in Virginia, he offered his most detailed list to date of programs he said should spring from "our faith, the Word, and His will." They range from a new service corps for disadvantaged youths and a program to have nurses teach low-income mothers good parenting to more jobs programs for ex-convicts and more venture capital for minority-owned businesses.
Elsewhere, he has preached a version of his church's critique of black "middleclassness." He told a crowd in Selma, Ala., in March that his generation of blacks should strive for more than just "some of that Oprah money."
"Materialism alone will not fulfill the possibilities of your existence," he said. "You have to fill it with the golden rule. You've got to fill it with thinking about others."
Last year, he and Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, sponsored a successful bill to let people in bankruptcy continue to donate money to their places of worship.
Obama's advisers say his open faith and personal narrative are political assets as churchgoers grow increasingly disillusioned with Mr. Bush. "The ultimate swing voters right now are moderate Catholic voters and moderate evangelical voters," says Shaun Casey, professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington and an Obama campaign adviser. "There are more opportunities for Democrats with them than there have been in about 20 years."
In addition to Mr. DuBois, the campaign has faith-outreach workers on staff in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. It holds conference calls every week with religious leaders in the early primary states. And it has staged a half dozen "faith forums" in New Hampshire, where voters, local clergy, and campaign staff trade views on the proper role of faith in public life.
A Time magazine poll released Thursday found that more voters see Obama as a strongly religious person than they do every major presidential hopeful but Mitt Romney, the Republican former governor of Massachusetts whose Mormonism has drawn extensive news coverage.
But whether that public perception translates into votes, even among the 1.2 million members of Obama's own denomination, has yet to be seen.
At the annual gathering for Iowa clergy of the United Church of Christ, which Obama addressed last month, the finance chair of a church outside Des Moines said he had thought Obama was Muslim.