New Christian group airs ads – for Obama

The group counters attacks on the Democrat while broadening issues important to Evangelicals and others.

Blair Anderson/AP
Voice for Obama: Pastor and author Brian McLaren, a leader in the ‘emerging church’ movement, is a voice for the Matthew 25 Network.

His face fills the screen as the man looks earnestly into the camera and speaks directly to the viewer.

"As a pastor, I know you can learn a lot about a man's character by the way he treats his family," he says. It's prominent evangelical leader Brian McLaren, and so begins the new TV ad for Sen. Barack Obama, which ran last weekend during Pastor Rick Warren's presidential forum at Saddleback Church in California.

The ad on "standing up for families" doesn't come from the Obama campaign, but from an independent political action committee (PAC) that has recently joined the battle for the Christian vote.

The Matthew 25 Network, as it's called, is a group of Evangelical, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Pentecostal Christians. Its purpose, organizers say, is to broaden the issues Christians pay attention to and also to counter falsehoods or smears targeting Senator Obama. The PAC is sponsoring radio and television advertisements aimed specifically at Christians, mostly on Christian radio in key swing states. There are ads in religious publications as well.

Organizers say the TV ad is the first by active clergy for a Democratic presidential candidate. It includes the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, who's been close to President Bush and who recently officiated at Jenna Bush's wedding in Crawford, Texas.

"We've seen the domination of just a couple of issues surround the Christian voice in politics," says Mara Vanderslice, the evangelical founder of the group who worked for John Kerry's presidential campaign in 2004. "We wanted a Christian voice that better reflected the gospel values missing from the landscape." For this reason, the organization named its effort after the gospel story in which Jesus calls on his followers to "care for the least of these."

The new PAC is gaining support from a variety of Christians, some of whom are new to political action.

The Rev. Wilfredo De Jesus, a leader in the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference says it was time for him to join other believers in addressing concerns of marginalized people. "For Hispanic Evangelicals, this is something deep in the heart," he says.

Some Catholics see the network and Obama as addressing the justice concerns that are part of Catholic social teaching.

"People like myself get a lot of attention when we talk about issues like abortion and family life, but not when we talk about helping low-income people," says Sharon Daly, former vice president of Catholic Charities. "Matthew 25 gives us the opportunity to try to get candidates to focus on these concerns."

While the network is only endorsing Obama this year, it aims to become a permanent group that eventually supports candidates at various levels of government.

"The issues people pray about before they go to bed at night aren't those divisive issues Republicans have raised," Ms. Vanderslice says. "They pray about their son or daughter being overseas, or how they'll take care of their mother-in-law's nursing bills, or whether their son can go to college."

Yet the PAC, which includes people who are both against abortion and for abortion rights, won't shy away from the issue. "Everyone in the network is focused on reducing the number of abortions - and that's where Senator Obama's focus is, along with emphasizing personal responsibility, fatherhood, and having the courage to raise a child," she says.

A section of the website called "Put Away Falsehood" (Eph. 4:25) addresses specific claims made about the Illinois senator, from his being a Muslim to supporting infanticide. The group also has called on Sen. John McCain's campaign to remove an ad titled "The One," in which Obama is mocked as a Messiah figure. It's stirred considerable controversy for what some see as an attempt to portray him as the Antichrist through use of evangelical symbolism connected to the bestselling "Left Behind" series of novels.

The Network ad running on Christian radio, in which Obama talks about his faith, has brought strong reaction from the religious right. James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, warns his listeners against the "highly seductive" Matthew 25 ads.

Some future Network ads will target Catholics directly. Obama says he found his Christian faith while working as a community organizer among low-income people in a Catholic-sponsored program, Ms. Daly emphasizes.

She believes that as "Catholics reflect on this and get to know more about him," their support will grow.

Radio ads will run in English and Spanish, targeting such key states as Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Virginia.

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