On June 10, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama convened a meeting in a law office in downtown Chicago with a wide array of about thirty evangelical leaders, in an unprecedented effort to win their support. Obama insisted that the meeting remain entirely off the record, forbidding participants from disclosing his statements to the press. His campaign has kept the names of attendees a closely guarded secret. But through interviews with participants and overlooked statements in obscure publications of the Christian press, a first-hand picture of the meeting emerges, starkly at odds with the news reports that accepted the formal version at face value.
News accounts about the meeting stated that Obama impressed his audience with his sincerity, depth of theological knowledge and communication skills. But according to those present, he did little to assuage the hostility that many of the assembled–particularly the conservative white evangelicals–harbor toward him and his liberal positions on social issues. Those differences reached a crescendo when the Rev. Franklin Graham directly confronted Obama about his supposedly Muslim background and Christian authenticity.
Franklin Graham, son of the evangelical icon Billy Graham and head of the international Christian aid organization Samaritan’s Purse, was seated next to Obama at the meeting. He peppered Obama with pointed questions, repeatedly demanding to know if the senator believed that “Jesus was the way to God or merely a way.” Graham, who once incited an international controversy by calling Islam a “very evil and wicked religion,” proceeded to inquire about the Muslim faith of Obama’s father, suggesting that Obama himself may be a Muslim.
“They focused on abortion, gay marriage, and then Franklin Graham tried to get Senator Obama saved,” said Rev. Eugene Rivers, an African-American pastor from Boston who attended the meeting. Rivers told the Religion News Service that Graham pointedly questioned Obama’s “father’s connections to Islam.” Obama reportedly said of his father, “The least of things he was was Islamic.”
Graham’s spokesman, Mark DeMoss, denies that Graham asked Obama about his father’s Muslim faith. DeMoss did, however, confirm that Graham questioned whether the candidate believed Jesus was the only way to Heaven. “Jesus is the only way for me. I’m not in a position to judge other people,” Obama responded, according to Rivers.
Stephen Strang, a right-wing Pentecostal, was among those invited to Obama’s meeting. He is the multimillionaire publisher of Charisma, an evangelical magazine, and a signatory of the World Evangelical Alliance statement urging evangelization of Jews. In naming him one of the twenty-five “most influential evangelicals in America,” Time called Strang “a Bush favorite ever since his homegrown Christian publishing house, Strang Communications, released The Faith of George W. Bush, the first spiritual biography of the President, in 2003.” “We didn’t write it to help Bush, but it no doubt helped elect him,” declares Strang. He is also a close associate of controversial End Times theology proponent Pastor John Hagee, whose endorsement presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain recently rejected after a firestorm of criticism. Strang is a member of the board of Hagee’s organization, Christians United For Israel, and a publisher of Hagee’s book on Israel. Strang told me that several participants, not just Graham, expressed concern about the Muslim background of certain Obama family members. Obama replied that he had hardly known his father, who left his family when Obama was 2, and he sought to downplay the notion that his stepfather, an Indonesian Muslim, was active in his faith. “I remember [Obama] saying, ‘We never went to the mosque when we lived in Indonesia,’ ” Strang said.