Obama courts evangelicals with stress on faith

ZANESVILLE, Ohio (Reuters) - Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama promised a more active approach to faith-based social programs on Tuesday in a bid to bolster his support among evangelical and religious voters.

Obama visited a community ministry in a conservative region of the election battleground state of Ohio to unveil a plan to reinvigorate faith-based community programs first pioneered by President George W. Bush.

The Illinois senator, who will face Republican John McCain in November’s presidential election, said he would put more money and emphasis on strengthening the link between government and community faith programs.

“The fact is, the challenges we face today -- from saving our planet to ending poverty -- are simply too big for government to solve alone,” Obama said. “We need an all-hands-on-deck approach.”

McCain and Obama are gearing up for a pitched battle for evangelical support in November’s election. Neither candidate has inspired strong enthusiasm in the religious community, normally a core Republican bloc.

Most polls show McCain beating Obama by 3-to-1 or more among evangelicals, but Obama hopes to do better among the group than Democrat John Kerry did in 2004, when Bush won four of every five evangelicals.

Obama has been hindered by the controversy about the incendiary comments of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and by false Internet rumors that he is a Muslim, as well as Internet whisper campaigns about his patriotism.

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But Obama hopes growing concerns among evangelicals about issues like global warming and poverty, and unhappiness with the war and the leadership of Bush and Republicans, give him an opening to court an electorate that accounted for more than 20 percent of voters in 2004.

“I want this to be central to our White House mission,” he told reporters in Zanesville.

Obama, who stressed his religious faith during the 16-month nominating battle with Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, said he learned early on as a community organizer in Chicago the value of acting on his faith.

“I came to see my faith as being both a personal commitment to Christ and a commitment to my community -- while I could sit in church and pray all I want, I wouldn’t be fulfilling God’s will unless I went out and did the Lord’s work,” he said.

Obama said the office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives set up by Bush as part of his “compassionate conservative” agenda never lived up to its early promise and social service programs for the poor had been underfunded.

He proposed a new Council for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships to reinvigorate the effort.

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“The new name will reflect a new commitment,” he said after a tour of a ministry that provides food, clothing and services for the needy in Zanesville.

His proposal would launch a training program to offer instruction to community faith-based organizations on how to teach smaller groups to take advantage of government programs, and he would provide new summer opportunities for up to 1 million children.

The new summer learning program would cost $500 million a year -- financed by cutting wasteful spending in federal procurement and management.

He stressed that recipients of government funds in the program would be prohibited from discrimination on religious grounds in hiring and from proselytizing with public funds, and the money could only be directed to nonreligious programs.

“I believe deeply in the separation of church and state, but I don’t believe this partnership will endanger that idea,” Obama said.

Obama begins a three-day campaign swing to the West on Wednesday, visiting Colorado, North Dakota and winding up in Montana on the July 4th Independence Day holiday.

(Editing by David Wiessler)

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