Obama Criticized over Efforts to Tout Himself As a Christian

Just a week ago, Jewish organizations stepped up to defend U.S. Sen. Barack Obama against an Internet campaign smearing him as a radical Muslim. Now some Jewish communal leaders feel the Democratic presidential candidate is going too far in touting his Christian bona fides.

The Anti-Defamation League has asked the campaign of the Illinois senator to clarify fliers distributed in South Carolina declaring Obama to be a “committed Christian.” The flier features Obama posing in churches — in one instance, in front of a cross — and reassures the reader: “Guided by his Christian faith, Barack Obama is the leader we can trust to challenge the ways of Washington.”

It also includes a passage quoting Obama on the “power of prayer,” saying: “We’ve got to express those values through our government, not just through our religious institutions.”

“It’s one thing to say ‘here’s who I am,’ ” Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, told JTA a day after sending the letter requesting clarification from the campaign. “It’s another to say vote for me because I am” Christian.

Obama’s campaign said the fliers mailed to voters in South Carolina, which has its primary on Saturday, were aimed at addressing false e-mail rumors that Obama was a Muslim.

Eric Lynn, Obama’s spokesman on Jewish matters, said he expected some understanding from Jewish leaders on the flier, knowing that Jews have been targets of the “Obama is a Muslim” campaign.

The e-mail campaign prompted two open letters — one from nine organizational leaders, including Foxman, and one from seven Jewish senators — repudiating the rumors as false.

“Barack Obama is not trying to introduce Christianity into the campaign,” Lynn said. “This mailer’s intent is to inform the voter about who Barack Obama is in light of the number of smears that have defined him incorrectly as a Muslim.”

Such questions are especially sensitive in a state where voters in both parties are more apt to attend church than in other states.

Lynn drew distinctions between Obama’s setting the record straight and Republican candidates such as Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, or U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who have suggested that Christianity is an American value.

Huckabee has further suggested that the U.S. Constitution is more malleable than the country’s Christian character. McCain at one point described the United States as a “Christian nation,” but later retracted that statement.

On Obama’s Web site, a link entitled “Faith” emphasizes his outreach to believer, but also is unequivocal in his belief in the separation of church and state.

“The separation of church and state is critical and has caused our democracy and religious practices to thrive,” it says.

Those distinctions were drawn as well by the National Jewish Democratic Council in a statement that nonetheless expressed discomfiture with the imagery on the fliers.

It said the council “would advise any candidate, including Sen. Obama, not to use this type of religious language and symbolism in campaign materials.”

“Perhaps one can sympathize with the Obama campaign given that they have been forced to respond to right-wing, false claims about the candidate’s religious faith. Moreover this ad’s message is a far cry from John McCain’s claim that the United States is a ‘Christian Nation,’ or Mike Huckabee’s more exclusionary religious language,” the organization said.

“Unlike the Republican candidates for president, Sen. Obama has an exemplary record on the separation of church and state.”

Foxman was not convinced by such distinctions, seeing the Obama camp more in the context of a campaign season in which candidates have increasingly made religion an issue. In October, the ADL appealed to all candidates to de-emphasize religion.

“It’s a competition of hawking their faith,” Foxman said, “and it’s so contrary to what we think or what America’s about.”

Obama’s current controversy echoes that of Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and Republican candidate who drew Jewish criticism late last year for perceived overreaching. Romney, defending his Mormon faith, seemed to make belief in God a prerequisite for the presidency.

The Republican Jewish Coalition said in light of such controversies, a failure to target the Obama fliers underscored a double standard.

“Democrats seem to feel that our community will be more lenient when their candidates make explicit Christian appeals,” said Suzanne Kurtz, the RJC spokeswoman. “Will those who complained about Republican candidates’ messages apply a consistent standard now that the messenger is a Democrat?”

Foxman, however, had sympathy for Obama’s predicament in continuing to have to make the case that he is indeed a Christian and not a “secret” Muslim.

“We understand this is an issue that troubles him, but I’m not sure this is the best way to do it,” the ADL leader said. “I would have been more comfortable getting eight ministers to say he’s a good Christian.”

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