Interview by Sarah Pulliam and Ted Olsen
Barack Obama wants to set the record straight. He is not a Muslim, as recent e-mails falsely claim.
The Democratic presidential candidate is fighting the e-mails that have been widely circulated. Obama has been continually speaking about the role of faith in politics since his Call to Renewal address in June 2006.
In the days before the South Carolina primary, he is driving efforts to speaking with media to emphasize his Christian beliefs. His campaign also sent out a recent mailer portraying the candidate with his head bowed in prayer and says that he will be guided by prayer when he is in office.
The senator from Illinois spoke with Sarah Pulliam and Ted Olsen today about his faith, abortion, and the evangelical vote.
What do you think your biggest obstacle will be in reaching evangelicals?
You know, I think that there's been a set of habits of thinking about the interaction between evangelicals and Democrats that we have to change. Democrats haven't shown up. Evangelicals have come to believe often times that Democrats are anti-faith. Part of my job in this campaign, something that I started doing well before this campaign, was to make sure I was showing up and reaching out and sharing my faith experience with people who share that faith. Hopefully we can build some bridges that can allow us to move the country forward.
What would you do in office differently than Hillary Clinton or John Edwards that would appeal to evangelicals?
I have not focused on all of their policies so I don't want to speak about what their positions will be. I know that as president, I want to celebrate the richness and diversity of our faith experience in this country. I think it is important for us to encourage churches and congregations all across the country to involve themselves in rebuilding communities. One of the things I have consistently argued is that we can structure faith-based programs that prove to be successful — like substance abuse or prison ministries — without violating church and state. We should make sure they are rebuilding the lives of people even if they're not members of a particular congregation. That's the kind of involvement that I think many churches are pursuing, including my own. It can make a real difference in the lives of people all across the country.
So would you keep the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives open or restructure it?
You know, what I'd like to do is I'd like to see how it's been operating. One of the things that I think churches have to be mindful of is that if the federal government starts paying the piper, then they get to call the tune. It can, over the long term, be an encroachment on religious freedom. So, I want to see how moneys have been allocated through that office before I make a firm commitment in terms of sustaining practices that may not have worked as well as they should have.
One of the critiques of the Bush office on faith-based initiatives — beyond the church and state question — is that while it opened up competition to religious organizations or church-based organizations to compete for some of these federal funds, there was no additional allocation; there was no change in the funding. Instead, there were more organizations competing for the same the slice of pie.
I think that's right. There's always a danger in those situations that money is being allocating based on politics, as opposed to merit and substance. That doesn't just compromise government. More importantly, it compromises potentially our religious institutions.
For many evangelicals, abortion is a key, if not the key factor in their vote. You voted against banning partial birth abortion and voted against notifying parents of minors who get out-of-state abortions. What role do you think the President should play in creating national abortion policies?
I don't know anybody who is pro-abortion. I think it's very important to start with that premise. I think people recognize what a wrenching, difficult issue it is. I do think that those who diminish the moral elements of the decision aren't expressing the full reality of it. But what I believe is that women do not make these decisions casually, and that they struggle with it fervently with their pastors, with their spouses, with their doctors.
Our goal should be to make abortion less common, that we should be discouraging unwanted pregnancies, that we should encourage adoption wherever possible. There is a range of ways that we can educate our young people about the sacredness of sex and we should not be promoting the sort of casual activities that end up resulting in so many unwanted pregnancies.
Ultimately, women are in the best position to make a decision at the end of the day about these issues. With significant constraints. For example, I think we can legitimately say — the state can legitimately say — that we are prohibiting late-term abortions as long as there's an exception for the mother's health. Those provisions that I voted against typically didn't have those exceptions, which raises profound questions where you might have a mother at great risk. Those are issues that I don't think the government can unilaterally make a decision about. I think they need to be made in consultation with doctors, they have to be prayed upon, or people have to be consulting their conscience on it. I think we have to keep that decision-making with the person themselves.
You've talked about your experience walking down the aisle at Trinity United Church of Christ, and kneeling beneath the cross, having your sins redeemed, and submitting to God's will. Would you describe that as a conversion? Do you consider yourself born again?
I am a Christian, and I am a devout Christian. I believe in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that that faith gives me a path to be cleansed of sin and have eternal life. But most importantly, I believe in the example that Jesus set by feeding the hungry and healing the sick and always prioritizing the least of these over the powerful. I didn't 'fall out in church' as they say, but there was a very strong awakening in me of the importance of these issues in my life. I didn't want to walk alone on this journey. Accepting Jesus Christ in my life has been a powerful guide for my conduct and my values and my ideals.
There is one thing that I want to mention that I think is important. Part of what we've been seeing during the course this campaign is some scurrilous e-mails that have been sent out, denying my faith, talking about me being a Muslim, suggesting that I got sworn in the U.S. Senate with a Quran in my hand or that I don't pledge allegiance to the flag. I think it's really important for your readers to know that I have been a member of the same church for almost 20 years, and I have never practiced Islam. I am respectful of the religion, but it's not my own. One of the things that's very important in this day and age is that we don't use religion as a political tool and certainly that we don't lie about religion as a way to score political points. I just thought it was important to get that in there to dispel rumors that have been over the Internet. We've done so repeatedly, but obviously it's a political tactic of somebody to try to provide this misinformation.
Is there any sense of how wide this e-mail has been distributed?
This is similar to these smear tactics that were used against John McCain in 2000. We have to continually chase down this stuff. It's obviously being sent out in a systematic way. You guys really help by getting the story straight.
Source: Christianity Today - January 23, 2008.