Obama converts evangelicals to Democrat cause

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The Independent US

If Barack Obama ends up running for the White House, expect to see this footage run over and over on a television screen near you: the charismatic black Democratic senator from Illinois talking the language of God and receiving a standing ovation from a packed crowd at one of the country's most prominent conservative evangelical mega-churches.

Mr Obama entered the political equivalent of the lion's den - the sprawling campus of Saddleback Church in the most conservative far reaches of suburban Orange County in southern California.

Many evangelicals were appalled that he should be invited to address their own, given his liberal attitude to hot-button issues such as abortion and gay rights. One fundamentalist leader said he represented "the antithesis of biblical ethics and morality". A coalition of "pro-life" groups said they could never work with someone who advocated "the murder of babies in the womb".

And yet Mr Obama not only survived the experience. He made perhaps the most powerful case to date that Democrats can talk to evangelicals, too, that Jesus is not a Republican, and that no voters are so ideologically distant that they cannot be wooed and won over.

"This is my house, too. This is God's house," he said. "We've all got a stake in each other. I am my brother's keeper." That last line had members of the audience yelping "yes!" and applauding wildly.

Mr Obama described himself as a man of faith, a regular congregant on Chicago's South Side, and had no trouble quoting scripture as he talked about the need to bring governments, churches and businesses together to fight the Aids pandemic.

It was not just a significant moment for Mr Obama. It was also the latest indication that Americans - even right-wing Christian conservatives - are sick of the divisive politics that have marked the first six years of the Bush administration and are ready to bridge the divide and build cross-party coalitions. Mr Obama shared a platform with his fellow senator, the Kansas Republican Sam Brownback, one of the most conservative members of Congress, who spoke a very similar language of inclusion and dialogue. Senator Brownback joked about a recent event in which he talked about Aids and Africa with Mr Obama and the actor George Clooney, saying he felt like "a mule in the Kentucky derby - you may not win the race, but you enjoy the company".

Mr Obama felt little similar discomfort at Saddleback, hesitating only when he defended his advocacy of condom use as well as abstinence in the fight against Aids. After a long preamble in which he talked about the need to rebuild the lost bonds between spirituality and sexuality, he said the stakes were simply too high to expect ideal standards of behaviour. "I don't accept that those who make mistakes should receive a death sentence," he said. Nobody booed that, and many applauded.

Saddleback may be relatively receptive terrain for a man like Senator Obama, but the trend away from evangelical Christian identification with the Republican Party is under way much more generally. Last month's mid-terms saw a marked closing of the so-called "God gap", as regular church-goers voted Republican by only a 12-point margin, down from 20 points four years ago.

Evangelicals may care about abortion and gay marriage, but they also care about the Iraq war and the environment and issues of social justice, polling data shows. Some of the more extreme leaders have either distanced themselves from the Bush White House because they are disappointed that their social agenda has not been carried out, or else they have tarnished their reputations through scandal - such as Ted Haggard, the former president of the National Association of Evangelicals who resigned after a male prostitute revealed that they had had regular sexual encounters.

The Democrats arguably did themselves considerable damage by projecting an excessively secular image, something the party is now actively seeking to change. Churches, after all, were a driving force behind progressive causes such as the civil rights movement, and politicians such as Mr Obama clearly believe they can be harnessed.

In his Saddleback address, Mr Obama called for an end to politics that are "punitive, petty, divisive and small". It earned him his biggest applause of the day, and may well propel him towards the Oval Office.