Barack Obama discussed Darfur, the Iraq war, gay rights, abortion and other issues Tuesday with Christian leaders, including conservatives who have been criticized for praising the Democratic presidential candidate.
Bishop T.D. Jakes, a prominent black clergyman who heads a Dallas megachurch, said Obama took questions, listened to participants and discussed his "personal journey of faith."
The discussion "went absolutely everywhere," Jakes told The Associated Press, and "just about every Christian stripe was represented in that room."
Jakes, who does not endorse candidates and said he also hopes to meet with Republican presidential candidate John McCain, said some participants clearly have political differences with Obama. The senator's support for abortion rights and gay rights, among other issues, draws opposition from religious conservatives. Some conservatives have criticized Jakes for praising Obama.
Jakes said the meeting, at a law firm's offices, seemed designed to prompt a wide discussion rather than to result in commitments from either Obama or those attending. Others familiar with the meeting said some participants agreed to attend only because it would be private.
Rich Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella organization for evangelical churches and ministries, said Obama asked participants to share "anything that's on your mind that is of concern to you."
"Impressive" and "warm"
"I think it's important to point out this isn't a group of people who are endorsing Obama," Cizik said in an interview. "People were asked for their insider wisdom and understanding of the religious community."
Mark DeMoss, a spokesman for the Rev. Franklin Graham, said Graham attended and asked Obama whether "he thought Jesus was the way to God, or merely a way." DeMoss declined to discuss Obama's response.
Graham, who succeeded his father as head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, found the senator "impressive" and "warm," DeMoss said.
"He feels that dialogue with someone who may be president is useful whether or not you agree with them on everything or anything," DeMoss said. Graham expects to soon meet with Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
Joshua Dubois, the Obama campaign's director of faith outreach, said the meeting included "prominent evangelicals and other faith leaders" who "discussed policy issues and came together in conversation and prayer." Similar sessions will occur "in the months to come," he said.
About 30 people attended, the campaign said, but it released only three names: the Rev. Stephen Thurston, head of the National Baptist Convention of America, Inc., a historically black denomination; the Rev. T. Dewitt Smith, president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc., which was home to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders; and Bishop Phillip Robert Cousin Sr., an A.M.E. clergyman and former NAACP board member.
Two sources familiar with the meeting, but who spoke on background because the session was private, said others attending included conservative Catholic constitutional lawyer Doug Kmiec; evangelical author Max Lucado of San Antonio; Cameron Strang, founder of Relevant Media, which is aimed at young Christians; the Rev. Luis Cortes of Esperanza USA; and Paul Corts, president of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities.
Kmiec, an abortion opponent who worked for the Reagan administration's Justice Department, was denied Communion in April at a Mass for Catholic business people because he had endorsed Obama. Church leaders later apologized, according to syndicated columnist E.J. Dionne.
Cizik said the issues discussed Tuesday included "protecting the traditional family, same-sex marriage, gay rights, religious freedom, genocide, poverty and hunger in America, and how we might even improve America's standing in the world."
He said he told Obama: "Religious Americans want to know why is it you love this country and what it stands for and how we can make it better."
Cizik said participants agreed not to give specifics of Obama's responses to their questions, but that "there was nothing softball about this meeting and that's the way he said he wanted it."
Jakes said there was just a brief mention of Jeremiah Wright, Obama's former pastor, who became the focus of a political flare-up earlier in the year after videos of his sermons showed him cursing the government and accusing it of conspiring against blacks. Obama eventually broke with Wright and resigned from Trinity United Church of Christ.