Steve Strang knew the ground rules for the recent meeting between Sen. Barack Obama and a flock of evangelical, Catholic and liberal Protestant leaders.
The invitation to the Chicago gathering stated: "This is an off-the-record (no media) time for questioning and listening, with no expectation of endorsement."
But it's one thing to keep Obama's answers off the record. As soon as the two-hour meeting was over, some participants began talking and writing about the questions they had asked.
"I was concerned after three or four general questions that we wouldn't ask the most important questions," wrote Strang, the founder of Charisma Magazine. "So I raised my hand. ... I said, 'Senator, I want to ask a question I'm sure you are expecting regarding your position on abortion. I represent a segment of the church where nearly everyone considers the issue of supporting life to be the most important issue and where nearly everyone would be opposed to abortion. I want to ask what your stand on abortion is and if you believe what I think you believe, how you justify that with your Christian faith."
Strang said Obama offered a surprisingly "centrist," 15-minute answer. Since the evangelical entrepreneur had read the Obama's "Audacity of Hope" memoir, he recognized that the response came from its "Faith" chapter.
Thus, it's likely that the presumptive Democratic nominee retold the story of the University of Chicago doctor who gently challenged a statement on a U.S. Senate campaign website pledging that Obama would fight "right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose." The doctor's email said he wasn't asking Obama to oppose abortion, but to begin addressing "this issue in fair-minded words."
Obama told his staff to drop the offensive language, in recognition of the fact that many abortion opponents want sincere, sober discussions instead of more shouting. About that time, a member of a polite, pro-life family protesting outside an Obama rally called out: "I will pray for you. I will pray that you have a change of heart."
Thus, Obama wrote: "Neither my mind nor my heart changed that day, not did they in the days to come. But I did have that family in mind as I wrote back to the doctor and thanked him for his email. ... I said a prayer of my own -- that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me."
After the Chicago meeting, online reports by Strang and others said the leaders discussed a wide variety of issues, from the Iraq war to same-sex marriage, from genocide in Darfur to religious liberty issues here at home. A spokesman for the Rev. Franklin Graham said that the head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association asked if Obama "thought Jesus was the way to God, or merely a way" -- but did not report the response. There were conflicting reports about whether Graham and Obama exchanged a hug or a handshake.
But abortion remains a high hurdle in an era when several U.S. Supreme Court justices are near retirement.
Is change possible? In "The Audacity of Hope," Obama noted that many opponents of abortion are willing to "bend principle" in cases of rape and incest. Meanwhile, the willingness of "even the most ardent" of pro-abortion-rights advocates to "accept some restrictions on late-term abortion marks a recognition that a fetus is more than a body part."
The key, stressed Strang, was that the Chicago meeting even took place, allowing frank discussion of such bitterly divisive issues.
Rather than merely talking to the religious left, Obama's staff offered him a chance to talk and pray with a variety of evangelical and Pentecostal leaders -- such as author Max Lucado of San Antonio, Rich Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals, Bishop T.D. Jakes of Dallas and many others.
"Obama seemed to have the support of at least half of the 43 leaders who attended the Chicago meeting," noted Strang. "In my opinion, he 'made points' with the rest."
David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network was even more blunt about the meeting's political implications.
"Folks, this is an important development," he said. "It shows that the game has changed. Old rules don't apply. We're in uncharted territory. John McCain's religious outreach team has to now step to the plate and work hard for faith voters."