Obama courts conservatives
Democrat touts new faith program

ZANESVILLE, Ohio - Taking a page from President Bush, Democrat Barack Obama said Tuesday he wants to expand White House efforts to steer social service dollars to religious groups, risking protests in his own party with his latest aggressive reach for voters who usually vote Republican.

Obama contended he is merely stating long-held positions - surprising to some, he said, after a primary campaign in which he was 'tagged as being on the left.'

In recent days, with the Democratic nomination in hand and the general election battle with Republican John McCain ahead, Obama has been sounding centrist themes with comments on guns, government surveillance and capital punishment. He's even quoted Ronald Reagan.

On Tuesday, touring Presbyterian Church-based social services facility, the Democratic senator said he would get religious charities more involved in government anti-poverty efforts if elected.

'We need an all-hands-on-deck approach,' he said at Eastside Community Ministry.

The event was part of a series leading into Friday's Fourth of July holiday aimed at reassuring skeptical voters and shifting away from being stamped as part of the Democratic Party's most liberal wing.

He said the connection of religion and public service was nothing new in his personal life.

Obama showed he was comfortable using the kind of language that is familiar in evangelical churches and Bible studies by calling his faith 'a personal commitment to Christ.' He said that his time as a community organizer in decimated Chicago neighborhoods, supported in part by a Catholic group, brought him to a deeper faith and also convinced him that faith is useless without works.

'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 declared.

His talk on faith in the battleground state of Ohio came a day after a speech on patriotism in Missouri, another November election battleground. Wednesday, he travels to Colorado Springs, Colo., a hub of conservative Christian organizations, for a speech focused on service.

With 80 percent of Americans saying they identify themselves with some religion, Obama's campaign has struggled with the topic.

Comments critical of America by Obama's longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, caused a firestorm during the primaries and brought Obama's brand of faith under scrutiny because of Wright's adherence to black liberation theology. Obama also has battled false but persistent rumors that he is a Muslim; they have been kept alive on the Internet despite his repeated talk about his longtime devotion to Christianity.