Left turn at Saddleback Church

Barack Obama received a warm welcome at an AIDS conference held by Rick "Purpose-Driven Life" Warren. But that doesn't mean evangelicals are ready to lay down their cross for Democrats.

Topics: Barack Obama, Sam Brownback, R-Kan., Rick Warren,

As he opened his remarks Friday at a World AIDS Day summit at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, Republican Sen. Sam Brownback said he was feeling a little more “comfortable” than he did the last time he shared a stage with Barack Obama. “We were both addressing the NAACP,” Brownback explained. “They were very polite to me  [but] I think they kind of wondered, ‘Who’s this guy from Kansas?’ And then Barack Obama follows, and they’re going, ‘OK, now we’ve got Elvis.’”

Figuring their joint appearance at an Orange County evangelical church finally put the shoe on the other foot, Brownback turned to Obama and said, “Welcome to my house.” The audience of evangelicals howled with laughter. But when Obama had the chance to speak a few minutes later, he returned to what Brownback had said: “There is one thing I’ve got to say, Sam: This is my house, too. This is God’s house.”

Everyone laughed again — neither Brownback’s opening nor Obama’s comeback were offered with the rancor that a cold retelling of them probably suggests — but the point had been made anyway. In Obama’s eyes, at least, the Republican Party can no longer claim ownership of all things evangelical.

The bad news for the GOP: Rick Warren apparently agrees.

Warren, who has built a sprawling church campus and an international following around his best-selling book, “The Purpose-Driven Life,” invited Obama to speak before the 2,000 or so evangelicals who gathered here for “Race Against Time,” a conference devoted to the ways in which churches can work to alleviate the AIDS crisis. The invitation caused a stir among anti-abortion leaders on the right. The National Clergy Council, among others, urged Warren to disinvite Obama, saying it was immoral for Christians to work in any capacity with anyone who supported abortion rights.

Obama offered to stay away, telling Warren in a phone call earlier this week that he didn’t want to be a distraction from Warren’s AIDS work. Warren declined, saying Friday that the AIDS problem is too big to start turning away people who are willing to “work to save lives.”

But Warren said more than that. In introducing Obama Friday, Warren called the Illinois senator a man of brains and heart and faith. He gave similar praise to Brownback, but this was a case where equal treatment wasn’t really equal. Brownback, a Methodist turned evangelical turned Catholic, has spent 12 years in Washington working as a warrior for the religious right, fighting against abortion and gay marriage, and for the confirmation of hard-line conservative judges. He needs no introduction among Christian conservatives.

Democrats do, even one as charismatic and God-talking as Obama is. The 45-year-old senator did not grow up in a particularly churchy household. While he opened his remarks by bringing greetings from the church he now attends in Chicago, it’s probably safe to say that few evangelical voters have thought of him as one of their own. At least until now. By allowing Obama to speak at his church, by throwing his arms around him — both figuratively and literally — Warren gave Obama both entrie and credibility; he put him on a stage where he wasn’t some distant Other to be demonized or mocked, but a man to be measured alongside another, more familiar one.

“This counts as a political move,” Mark Silk, director of the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College, told the Chicago Tribune earlier this week. “It means he’s not beyond the pale. We’re willing to regard him as part of the conversation.”

If that’s what Friday’s opportunity meant, Obama made the most of it. Brownback recited Psalm 100 from memory and pulled a well-worn Bible from his coat pocket to read the story of Lazarus. Obama followed by quoting from Corinthians and saying that his Bible teaches him that “God sent his only Son to Earth … to heal the sick and comfort the weary; to feed the hungry and to clothe the naked; to befriend the outcast and to redeem those who strayed from righteousness.”

The crowd laughed at all of Obama’s jokes and applauded at most of his applause lines. He told the story of a South African woman named Leo who’d lost family member after family member to AIDS. When he said, “My faith tells me that Leo’s family is my family, that they are my brothers and my sisters,” the audience moaned in agreement.

Still, it’s hard to read too much into the reaction Obama got here Friday. Although Warren’s AIDS event was held at Saddleback, this wasn’t the usual Saddleback crowd, the Orange County suburbanites and ex-urbanites who turn out each Sunday for a smorgasbord of religious offerings with music (gospel! rock ‘n’ roll! “sounds of the islands”!), located in a palm tree and faux-rock-studded setting that looks more like an upscale shopping center than the Old North Church. The people who heard Obama speak were mostly evangelicals, but they came from around the world, and they came because they had at least some interest in addressing the global AIDS crisis.

Even with the probably-more-open-than-most evangelical audience, Obama didn’t seem to connect with them as easily as Brownback did. The Kansas senator got the dress code and the cadence right, and he spent more time talking about his experiences with faith than about the specifics of the AIDS crisis. When he did mention the disease, he lumped it together with tragedy of malaria and the genocide in Darfur.

Obama and Brownback acknowledged that there was much about which they disagreed, but neither’s speech was even slightly partisan. At a press conference after their joint appearances, both men deflected a question about their plans for 2008, saying that they didn’t want to distract attention from the issue at hand.

But watching the two men make their way through the day, there was no way to forget their appearances came in the early days of a presidential race, in which they both may be contenders. Exit polls taken in conjunction with last month’s midterm elections show Democrats closing the “God Gap.” Maybe it’s just a temporary thing — conservative Christians can be upset as anybody about an unending war, slow economy and government corruption — but Democrats have spent much of the last two years talking about how they need to do a better job of talking about faith, and, in Obama, they could have a presidential candidate who can actually do it.

As Obama and Brownback took AIDS tests for the cameras, the new director of George W. Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives watched from the back of the room. Jay Hein said that Democrats “need to form new partnerships” with the religious community “because that is where the most stubborn problems are being solved.” He said he’s hopeful that Democrats like Obama and newly elected North Carolina Rep. Heath Shuler will be joining the Republicans in the “compassion space.” Isn’t that a risk for Republicans? Hein brushed away the question. Although there are “political ramifications” to his office’s work, he says, the political effect isn’t “Objective No. 1.” (Which is not how David Kuo sees it. A member of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Iniatives from 2001 to 2003, and author of a new book, Kuo recently told Salon he left the White House because he lost faith in its rhetoric. “Christians need to understand that politicians want them for their votes and not for anything else,” he said.)

If he hadn’t been rushed away from the press so quickly, Obama surely would have said that he visited Saddleback to talk about AIDS and the possibility of people working together, and any benefit for his own political career would be purely incidental. He probably would have said the Saddleback visit was only a first step, that it will take more than good words about the Good News to turn evangelicals who are willing to build alliances with Democrats into voters who will elect them.

How long is the road ahead? As Obama was leaving Saddleback, Franklin Graham was entertaining the crowd with well-received tales of hypocritical liberals who want to save all lives except those of the unborn. And Warren, defending himself in a TV interview, said that he believes that God has a purpose for every life, and that abortion “short-circuits” God’s purpose. At the end of the long driveway that leads out of Saddleback and into the manicured highways of Orange County, a lone man sat in a lawn chair holding a sign that depicted two men kissing. It said: “Stop AIDS? Stop Sin.”

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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