Sen. Barack Obama told a church convention Saturday that some right-wing evangelical leaders have exploited and politicized religious beliefs in an effort to sow division.
"But somehow, somewhere along the way, faith stopped being used to bring us together and faith started being used to drive us apart. Faith got hijacked, partly because of the so-called leaders of the Christian Right, all too eager to exploit what divides us," the Democratic presidential candidate said in a 30-minute speech before a national meeting of the United Church of Christ.
"At every opportunity, they've told evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their church, while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage, school prayer and intelligent design," he said.
"There was even a time when the Christian Coalition determined that its No. 1 legislative priority was tax cuts for the rich," Obama said. "I don't know what Bible they're reading, but it doesn't jibe with my version."
A call was placed to the Washington, D.C.-based Christian Coalition of America seeking comment.
Obama is a member of the United Church of Christ, a church of about 1.2 million members that is considered one the most liberal of the mainline Protestant groups.
He was warmly received by the crowd of more than 8,000 at the cavernous Hartford Civic Center, and was introduced as "one of ours" by the Rev. John H. Thomas, general minister and president of the United Church of Christ.
Obama was invited to speak to the church's biennial synod more than a year ago, before he declared his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination, Thomas said. The freshman Illinois senator was invited to talk about "how personal faith is lived out in the public square," Thomas said.
In 1972, the church was the first to ordain an openly gay man. Two years ago, the church endorsed same-sex marriage, the largest Christian denomination to do so. Obama believes that states should decide whether to allow gay marriage, and he opposes a constitutional amendment against it.
Conservative Christian bloggers have linked Obama to what they call the "unbiblical" teachings of his church. Theological conservatives believe gay relationships violate Scripture, while more liberal Christians emphasize the Bible's social justice teachings.
Obama trails Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York by 33 percent to 21 percent in the most recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll among Democrats and those leaning toward the party.