U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois told more than 2,000 evangelical leaders in Orange County on Friday that he "respectfully but unequivocally" disagrees with those who oppose condom distribution to fight the AIDS pandemic. But he said a solution to the worldwide spread of AIDS would also come from churches guiding people to make moral decisions.
Obama, a Democrat weighing a run for the White House, made his remarks at an evangelical AIDS conference sponsored by Saddleback Church in Lake Forest.
Some conservatives, offended by Obama's support for legal abortion, had called on the mega-church's pastor, Rick Warren, to rescind his invitation to the senator.
Yet Obama drew a standing ovation from the 2,072 pastors and others who came from 39 states and 18 nations to explore church solutions to the AIDS pandemic, which has killed 25 million people worldwide. In measured words, he dismissed the notion that simply discouraging promiscuity could stop the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
"We can't ignore the fact that abstinence and fidelity, although the ideal, may not always be the reality -- that we're dealing with flesh and blood men and women and not abstractions, and that if condoms and, potentially, things like microbicides, can prevent millions of deaths, then they should be made more widely available," he said.
He recalled traveling last summer to Kenya and South Africa, where he said he heard "stories of men and women contracting HIV because sex was no longer part of a sacred covenant, but a mechanical physical act; because men had visited prostitutes and then brought the disease home to their wives, or young girls had been subjected to rape and abuse. These are issues of prevention we can't walk away from."
But Obama also noted the power of religion to slow the spread of HIV. Churches, he said, must offer "a moral framework with a faith basis to make better choices."
"Let me say this loud and clear: I don't think that we can deny that there is a moral and spiritual component to prevention, that in too many places all over the world where HIV/AIDS is prevalent -- including, by the way, right here in the United States -- the relationship between men and women, between sexuality and spirituality, has broken down, and needs to be repaired," he said.
For Obama, the Saddleback appearance offered a high-profile venue to highlight the role of religious faith in his life as he steps into a more prominent role on the national political stage. A parishioner at Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago's South Side, he has described religion as an important moral force in politics and urged fellow Democrats to reach out to evangelicals.
Evangelicals, particularly those who are white, have strongly favored Republicans in national elections for decades. The Saddleback event also enabled Obama to spotlight his efforts to find common ground with Republicans on AIDS and other matters. Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist, said that after years of fierce partisan combat in Washington, D.C., voters were likely to look favorably on a presidential candidate who champions efforts to work together for the common good.
"At a political level, it's a very smart thing for him to do," he said of Obama's improbable stop at a mega-church in Republican-leaning Orange County.
In his speech at Saddleback's cavernous worship center in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains, Obama applauded the Bush administration for spending billions on AIDS programs abroad.
"I don't do that that often," he said to laughter, "and sometimes unfairly so, because this is an area where I think the Bush administration has not gotten enough credit. The administration and this Congress have been serious about putting resources in contributing to the fight against HIV and AIDS."
Before Obama spoke, Warren, leader of Saddleback's 20,000-strong congregation and author of the best-seller "The Purpose Driven Life," called on church leaders around the world to unite in efforts to fight AIDS. The pastor, dressed in blue jeans, cited the millions of African children from families afflicted with HIV.
"Friends, that's a continent sliding into the ocean," he told the crowd. "It is a race against time," he said. "People are dying."
Warren referred indirectly to the criticism that followed his invitation to Obama, saying people should listen respectfully to Democrats like Obama and Republicans like fellow speaker and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.).
"I've got two friends here, a Republican and a Democrat. Why?" Warren asked. "Because you've got to have two wings to fly."
Brownback seconded the sentiment when he spoke to the crowd, saying Democrats and Republicans need to "reach across the aisle" to combat AIDS.
"There's nothing political about dealing with malaria and global HIV," he said.
The Kansas senator, a conservative and also a potential presidential candidate, recalled his travels to Sudan and other parts of Africa, where he witnessed people suffering from AIDS and malaria and saw regions that had experienced genocide.
"If we'll just give them the crumbs off our table, they can live, and we can save our souls," Brownback said.
At a news conference after their speeches, Obama, Brownback and Warren were each administered HIV tests with a cheek swab -- a gesture aimed at lifting the stigma of HIV. Each tested negative.
Asked about the objections to his visit, Obama said: "I don't demonize other folks."
"I found that I've never learned anything from refusing to listen to other people or refusing to engage in conversation with them," he said, "and that surely can't be the basis for healthy politics in our society."
Obama and Brownback declined to discuss their potential candidacies for the U.S. presidency, saying that would distract from the summit's focus on AIDS.