Obama meets The 700 Club

NASHVILLE -- Washington correspondent David Brody knew it was a symbolic moment when Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean appeared on the Christian Broadcasting Network.

Then there was the landmark Nevada trip to interview Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his wife Landra at their home. Landing a face-to-face interview with Sen. Hillary Clinton for "The 700 Club"? Say no more.

Finally, after a year of negotiations, Sen. Barack Obama's staff took a leap of faith and scheduled an interview with the news team at the Rev. Pat Robertson's flagship network. Then Obama came back for another interview, then another and another.

Before that fourth interview, Brody expected to shake hands once again. But Obama caught him off guard by moving in for one of those "Hey, how are you doing?" shoulder-to-shoulder bumps that colleagues use when greeting one another.

"It was strange," said Brody, speaking at the annual Baptist Press Collegiate Journalism Conference. "You really don't want to be chest-bumping White House candidates. It just doesn't look right."

Indeed, these are strange times. In the past year, Democrats have been talking more about their faith than the Republicans -- part of a strategic attempt to capture a slice of a voting bloc that was so crucial in the 2004 elections. But in the age of talk radio, 24-hour cable TV coverage, weblogs and other forms of niche news, politicos are learning that they need to talk to a wider array of journalists to reach these values voters.

All kinds of doors are opening and "you have to be ready for your close-up," Brody told an audience of student journalists in Nashville, mostly from Christian campuses across the Bible Belt.

"Go after it hard. Be very, very aggressive. I can't tell you this enough," he said. "You need to make multiple phone calls a day to get your source to talk. You need to make sure that you are constantly really going after the story. Don't ever let up. ...

"Make sure you really find your niche, and make sure you know what you are passionate about."

After two decades in broadcasting -- mostly in mainstream newsrooms -- Brody has become a go-to commentator inside the Beltway, primarily by gaining a reputation as a fair-minded, even sympathetic sounding board for politicians on both sides of the aisle. Thus, Brody has even started turning up on MSNBC, CNN and NBC's "Meet The Press."

Democrats turn to his occasionally goofy weblog, "The Brody File," for insights into the views of conservative, centrist and progressive evangelicals. Republicans do the same thing, often to see how Democrats answer his frequent questions about hot-button social questions.

Brody stressed that he isn't interested in asking "gotcha questions" about faith in an attempt to trip them up. The journalist has heard his own share of loaded questions during his lifetime, since he was raised as a Jew in New York City before converting to Christianity while in college. Brody isn't fond of labels.

"I don't have an agenda, but I am going to ask questions about faith" during CBN news broadcasts, he said. "I am going to ask personal questions about how the candidates go about making their decisions. Still, I know that there are shades of gray when people start talking about faith. ... So much of our politics in the age of talk radio is totally back and white, but we really do try to avoid polarizing language."

Take the Obama interviews, for example. It's one thing, said Brody, to ask Obama specific questions about his liberal approach to Christianity, his support for abortion rights and commitment to expanding civil rights of gays and lesbians. It's something else to "play judge and jury" and try to challenge the reality of Obama's faith.

"There is no question that his sincerity shines through when he's talking to you about his Christian beliefs and the role that his faith plays in his life," said Brody. "This man says what he believes and he believes what he says. Obama has said over and over that he has given his life to Jesus Christ and I think people need to take his word on that. ...

"The question is whether this kind of dialogue with Obama will continue. Are we going to be able to keep talking, without trying to demonize each other? That's the big question."