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Barack Obama: Putting faith out front

How the Illinois senator came to embrace religion in his life.

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Another church leader, pastor Al Hohl of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Sioux City, Iowa, said he hadn't heard such candid talk of faith from a liberal since his days as a seminary student in the 1960s. He found it refreshing, but plans to vote for Bill Richardson, the New Mexico governor and Democratic presidential candidate, whom he views as more politically experienced.

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But others there said Obama gave voice to deeply held yet seldom expressed convictions about a progressive role for organized religion. "It's time we stand up to the conservatives," said Barbara Brandt, a parish administrator at a UCC church in Reinbeck, Iowa. "We're as Christian as they are."

Pastor disinvited

Obama's mingling of faith and politics has drawn fire from some on both the left and the right.

"A war of Bible-quoting isn't supposed to be going on during a campaign season," says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "Proof-testing the Bible to see if God is a liberal or a conservative or a uniter or a divider is not relevant."

Some evangelical leaders have questioned how Obama can square his Christianity with support for abortion rights and same-sex civil unions. And conservatives have pummeled Wright for his Afrocentric beliefs, his equation of Zionism with racism, and his remarks on the 9/11 attacks. ("In the 21st century, white America got a wake-up call after 9/11/01," Wright wrote in 2005 in a church- affiliated magazine. "White America and the Western world came to realize that people of color had not gone away, faded into the woodwork or just 'disappeared' as the Great White West kept on its merry way of ignoring Black concerns.")

The night before he announced his candidacy for president in February, Obama withdrew an invitation to Wright to give the public invocation, a decision that did not sit well with some other Chicago pastors. Pfleger said Obama told him that he didn't want criticism of Wright to detract from the big day. "I told him I thought it was the wrong decision," Pfleger said in an interview.

Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for the campaign, said "the change was made in order to avoid having statements and beliefs being used out of context and forcing the entire church to defend itself."

Wright remains Obama's pastor and friend, she said, but they do not see eye to eye on every issue. Obama, she said, "strongly disagrees with any portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that advocates divestment from Israel or expresses anything less than strong support for Israel's security."

As for the church's Black Value System, she said, Obama "believes its basic tenets of commitment to God, to community, to self-discipline and self-reliance continue to have applicability not only to the African-American community but to all people."

Though Obama was an early and fervent critic of the war in Iraq, he has steered clear of his pastor's sometimes inflammatory rhetoric. At a candidates' forum on faith last month, Obama framed his opposition in more nuanced terms.

"I always remember Abraham Lincoln when, during the Civil War, he said, 'We shouldn't be asking whose side God is on, but whether we're on His side,' " he said. "And I think that's the question that all of us have to ask ourselves.... Are we advancing the causes of justice and freedom? Are we our brother's keeper, our sister's keeper? And that's how I measure whether what we're doing is right."

Wright declined in an e-mail interview to answer questions about some of his contentious remarks. "I have given up trying to respond to conservatives who have done no study of liberation theology, black theology, or African-American history," he wrote.

Obama's message of faith and his ties to a controversial pastor have not been without pitfalls, analysts say.

But "the positives outweigh the negatives," says Professor Dwight Hopkins of the University of Chicago Divinity School, who is a member of Trinity but not affiliated with the Obama campaign. "I think he is one of the biggest threats to the Republican Party and their campaign, because he has seized the religious discursive ground. No Democratic candidate since Jimmy Carter has been able to do that."