November 30, 2007 / 1:04 AM / 10 years ago

Clinton woos evangelicals at AIDS conference

(Recasts with Clinton speech)

By Jill Serjeant

LAKE FOREST, Calif., Nov 29 (Reuters) - Emphasizing her own Christian faith and quoting frequently from the Bible, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton wooed a U.S. evangelical conference on AIDS on Thursday with a pledge to fight the global pandemic together.

Clinton was the only one of six invited presidential candidates to attend a meeting on the role of the evangelical church in fighting AIDS, hosted by the influential Saddleback Valley Community Church in Southern California.

"I know the power of faith and of people of faith," Clinton said to warm applause. "Together I believe we can write the next chapter in this history. It is a proud and grace-filled history."

Clinton won a standing ovation from the audience of some 1,500 Christian pastors, nongovernmental groups and church members, despite opposition in some parts of America’s 60 million strong evangelical community to her presence because of her support of abortion and gay rights.

Others saw Clinton’s appearance as a bid to grab votes from the religious right, which generally leans toward the Republican Party.

"What Saddleback is doing is helping raise her profile as a legitimate presidential candidate in the eyes of evangelical Christians, and I think that is a huge error," said Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, which has 2.8 million supporters.

Democrats Barack Obama and John Edwards and Republicans John McCain, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney sent short policy statements to the conference by video.

Clinton spoke of her upbringing in the Methodist church and pledged to spend $50 billion on treatment, prevention and care for global HIV/AIDS by 2013 if she is elected president.

"For many of us, the golden rule calls on us to act. Not only can we now talk about AIDS in church, but the Church is leading the way," she said of Saddleback’s efforts.

Said Saddleback member Christie Mayles afterward: "I wish I could have met her afterward. She is my new hero."

LIVES, NOT LABELS

Saddleback’s four year-old AIDS initiative is already controversial. It seeks to turn its 22,000 weekly followers and Christians around the world into volunteers and care-givers of AIDS victims. According to a 2005 poll by the Christian research group Barna only 17 percent of evangelical Christians surveyed said they would be willing to help AIDS orphans.

Saddleback pastor Rick Warren, author of the best-selling inspirational book "The Purpose Driven Life," said ahead of Thursday’s meeting that there were many issues on which Clinton and his church disagree.

"But when millions are dying each year we are interested in lives, not labels," Warren said in a statement. "We want everyone to become concerned about the AIDS pandemic."

Clinton had much to gain from a good reception at the conference. Scott Keeter, research director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, said surveys had shown that about 36 percent of white evangelical Protestants either identify themselves as Democrat or say they lean toward that party.

But in an August survey, 58 percent of those questioned had an unfavorable impression of Clinton, Keeter said.

Despite scathing attacks on some Christian message boards, the invitation to Clinton did not spark the organized protests seen a year ago when Obama visited Saddleback. That controversy also centered on abortion.

(Additional reporting by Ed Stoddard, editing by Philip Barbara)



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