Obama’s New Gospel

Tim Roemer is a gifted salesman working a tough territory. For weeks, the former Indiana congressman has been crisscrossing primary states trying to convince Roman Catholic voters that Barack Obama is their man. Just a few months ago, there were plenty of takers. Obama beat Hillary Clinton among Catholics in Louisiana and Virginia and tied her in Wisconsin. But in more recent primaries, Catholics have decisively turned away from him. In Ohio, exit polls showed that 65 percent backed Clinton. In Pennsylvania, Clinton won 70 percent of the Catholic vote.

What's going on here? "The short answer is, I don't know," says Roemer, who has spent hours quizzing Catholics at rallies and town-hall meetings. One possibility: Obama's ties to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. Roemer says that, like other voters, the Catholics he meets mostly want to talk about what the candidate will do about the economy, gas prices and the mess in Iraq. But Wright comes up often, especially now. Working Indiana voters, Roemer was asked repeatedly about the Chicago preacher. Last Monday, Wright reignited the controversy over his incendiary sermons. He gave two widely televised speeches in which he expanded on some of his more paranoid rants—charging that America brought the September 11 attacks on itself, and saying government scientists may have invented HIV as a weapon to use against minorities.

Roemer says voters usually want to know: does Obama believe this stuff? "They will ask, 'What is this guy's relationship to Obama?' " Roemer's ready answer is tailored specifically for his audience: "I say, 'Look, we can relate. We Catholics have had scandals in our own church recently, and not everyone who is Catholic is going out and abandoning the church. We know how unfair it is to associate all churchgoers with problems that are not their doing'." That's a pretty good comeback, but Roemer, and Obama, know it isn't going to be enough to win over the many voters—especially white, blue-collar men and women—who still have doubts about Obama's faith and American "values." The latest NEWSWEEK Poll found that 13 percent of Americans believe Obama, who is a churchgoing Christian, is Muslim. Another 26 percent couldn't identify his religion.

Numbers like this—and distractions like Wright—are frustrating for Obama, who envisions himself as the only candidate who can bridge the divide between secular liberals and religious conservatives and recast the Democrats as a party that welcomes the faithful. In his speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, he spoke of worshiping an "awesome God in the Blue States." In a video address the campaign shows to faith voters, Obama says that by working together to help those in need, "we'll be doing God's work here on earth."

One young Christian was so moved by Obama's gospel that he dropped everything and joined up with the Illinois senator. Joshua DuBois was a grad student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School when Obama delivered his convention speech. DuBois, who had become an associate pastor at a small evangelical church while still an undergrad at Boston University, says he was "enthralled" by Obama's references to faith. "I had been struggling with an internal conflict: what does God want me to do?" he says. He sent a letter to Obama asking for a job—and got a rejection form letter back. So DuBois drove to Washington, walked up to the front desk at Obama's Senate office and dropped off his résumé in person. Two months later he was hired and eventually became Obama's director of faith outreach.

DuBois, who is 25, now has the lofty title of national director of religious affairs for the Obama campaign. Real-world translation: he works 20-hour days trying to persuade priests, pastors, rabbis and clerics to endorse his boss—and, more important, to spread the word to their flocks. DuBois, who is tethered to a BlackBerry that is never not ringing—"Hiya, Father, I had a quick question for you …"—commands a team of six full-time religious outreach staffers and hundreds of volunteers and surrogates around the country. There's no way to tell if DuBois's efforts are having much of an effect on the way people vote—or on their perceptions of Obama. The campaign still receives enough letters and e-mails wondering if he is a Muslim that staffers now direct the queries to a page on Obama's Web site called "Obama Has Never Been A Muslim, And Is a Committed Christian." The Obama campaign says it is important to show religious voters that the candidate is serious about their concerns.

One way to do that, Obama reluctantly decided, was to show he wants nothing more to do with the Reverend Wright. Late Monday night, Obama flicked on the television in his North Carolina hotel room after an epic day of campaigning—and braced himself for what he knew he was going to see. Sure enough, the cable news networks were once again obsessing over Wright. Obama had thought his widely praised Philadelphia speech on race and Wright had largely quieted the storm over his former pastor's "God damn America" sermons. But Wright himself wasn't about to go quietly. In his speeches last week, the pastor praised Louis Farrakhan, and even took a few shots at Obama's attempts to put distance between himself and Wright. "Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability," he said, "based on sound bites, based on polls."

Throughout the day, Obama's aides had given him updates on what Wright was saying and how the flare-up was playing out in the press and on the Internet. The candidate figured the usual procession of shallow talking heads were, once again, just milking the story for maximum controversy and ratings. When Obama saw the speeches for himself, his irritation with the press turned into anger at his preacher, says a senior campaign aide who did not want to be named talking about private matters.

The rift between the candidate and the pastor had been growing for months. Wright was wounded when Obama—already worried about stories questioning Wright's controversial views—disinvited him from delivering the opening prayer when Obama announced he was running for president. Obama knew the pastor was not pleased with his Philadelphia race speech, in which the candidate said he disagreed with Wright's controversial comments but could no more disown him than he could his grandmother, who had also held opinions he did not share. Obama reached out to Wright during the controversy surrounding his sermons and offered to help him manage the onslaught of reporters who were coming at him day and night. But Wright refused. The pastor didn't even bother to tell Obama about his upcoming trip to Washington. The campaign learned about it from reporters.

Aides and friends describe that night as the toughest of the entire campaign for Obama and his wife, Michelle. They were anguished and dismayed. Wright had been a friend and mentor. Obama had said before that he couldn't cut him off; but after this bitter performance, how could he not sever his ties? "It was a circus," says the senior Obama aide. "Not only was Wright repeating things that were objectionable, but he was also impugning Barack's sincerity."

This time, Obama did not try to temper his remarks or put them in a larger context, as he had done in his measured Philadelphia speech. On Tuesday, he called Wright's speeches "appalling" and a "show of disrespect to me." He said he had given Wright the benefit of the doubt before, but now said "there are no excuses. [His words] offend me, they rightly offend all Americans and they should be denounced. And that's what I'm doing very clearly and unequivocally here today." Now guys like Roemer and DuBois can give a simple answer when they're asked about Obama's relationship with the controversial preacher: it's over.

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