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Barack Obama: Putting faith out front

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Attention to 'least of these'

More than the other Democratic candidates for president, Obama has made faith a centerpiece of his campaign.

He has warned the left against ceding the mantle of religion to the evangelical right. He speaks of the church as an abiding force in American public life, from the Boston Tea Party through the abolitionist and civil rights movements. He suffuses his speeches with biblical allusions – "I am my brother's keeper" is a favorite phrase. And he has cast his generation of black leaders as modern-day Joshuas, after Moses' successor, who led the Israelites to the Promised Land.

Many of Obama's political views are "an outgrowth of his reading of some of the seminal parts of the Bible about doing unto the 'least of these' just as we would have done unto Christ," says Joshua DuBois, the campaign's director of religious affairs, paraphrasing verses in the book of Matthew. "He takes very seriously the numerous passages in the Bible that talk not only about poverty, but of people of faith taking God's words and extending them beyond the four walls of the church."

But as Obama promotes faith as a means of uniting a diverse America around a shared set of values, he has at times found himself in a political minefield. To the left are liberals uneasy with religious intrusions into politics; to the right, conservatives who have questioned his Christianity and denounced his ties to Wright's Afrocentric church.

Secular childhood

Obama's childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia was a swirl of faiths and cultures. His father, a black Kenyan economist, was raised Muslim but was an atheist by the time Obama was born. His mother, a white Kansan, had Baptist and Methodist roots but viewed organized religion with a gimlet eye, wary of how often it cloaked intolerance.

"Jesus, she felt, was a wonderful example," Obama's half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, recalled in a phone interview. "But she felt that a lot of Christians behaved in un-Christian ways."

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