Obama Meets Privately With Christian Leaders

06/18/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

CHICAGO — Barack Obama discussed Darfur, the Iraq war, gay rights, abortion and other issues Tuesday with Christian leaders, including a conservative who has 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. His 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."

"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."

Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the gathering included evangelicals, Protestants and Catholics from across the country.

"Reaching out to the faith community is a priority for Barack Obama," she said. "This is one of several meetings he will have over the coming months with religious leaders."

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.

CBN.com, which tracks the evangelical community, said conservative Catholic constitutional lawyer Doug Kmiec also participated.

Cizik said the issues discussed 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 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 only 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.

In a recent posting on his Web site, Jakes said he was surprised by the criticism he received after he wrote about the pride he and his son felt in Obama becoming the first black presidential nominee of a major political party.

"I would have thought that my statement, which said and I quote: 'I hope that we can somehow merge the best ideas of our differences and emerge with a president who epitomizes our highest and best ideals' would have been enough to make clear that I had not endorsed anyone," Jakes wrote. "Evidently it wasn't completely clear and for that I apologize."


AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll contributed to this report.