GREENVILLE, South Carolina (CNN) -- Republicans no longer have a firm grip on religion in political discourse, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama told Sunday worshippers.
The senator from Illinois delivered his campaign message to a multiracial evangelical congregation in traditionally conservative Greenville, South Carolina. "I think it's important, particularly for those of us in the Democratic Party, to not cede values and faith to any one party," Obama told reporters outside the Redemption World Outreach Center where he attended services.
"I think that what you're seeing is a breaking down of the sharp divisions that existed maybe during the '90s," said Obama. "At least in politics, the perception was that the Democrats were fearful of talking about faith, and on the other hand you had the Republicans who had a particular brand of faith that oftentimes seemed intolerant or pushed people away."
Obama said he was pleased that leaders in the evangelical community such as T.D. Jakes and Rick Warren were beginning to discuss social justice issues like AIDS and poverty in ways evangelicals were not doing before.
"I think that's a healthy thing, that we're not putting people in boxes, that everybody is out there trying to figure out how do we live right and how do we create a stronger America," Obama said.
He finished his brief remarks by saying, "We're going to keep on praising together. I am confident that we can create a Kingdom right here on Earth."
It's rare for Democratic candidates to venture to the traditionally conservative Upstate region of South Carolina, which is characterized politically by church-going Republican primary voters living in and around Greenville and Spartanburg.
But Obama's visit here is not surprising given his campaign's recent efforts in South Carolina to reach out to Christian voters, including the state's large African-American population that makes up an estimated 50 percent of voters in the 2008 January Democratic primary.
A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll of 313 South Carolina Democrats conducted in early September put Obama -- with 27 percent -- behind New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, who was leading with 45 percent. The survey's margin of error was plus or minus 5 percentage points.
Nationwide, an average of 12 national polls conducted in September showed Clinton -- with 43 percent -- leading Obama who had 24 percent.
Obama's South Carolina campaign is in the midst of promoting Obama's values through a grass-roots effort called "40 Days of Faith and Family," which is reaching out to primary voters through gospel concerts and a series of faith forums.
Last weekend, Obama attended, but did not speak at, two churches in Columbia, one predominantly black and one predominantly white. At a town hall meeting in Aiken on Saturday, Obama was introduced by a pastor who led the crowd of 2,400 in a brief prayer.
There are times on the stump when Obama even sounds like a pastor himself, referencing New Testament phrases and sometimes saying "I'm not gonna preach to ya!" when emphasizing a point to his audience.
According to the religion-based Web site Beliefnet.com and its "God-o-Meter" tool that measures "God-talk" in the presidential campaigns, Obama invokes religion more than any of his Democratic competitors.
The Republican Party continues to be seen by half of Americans as "more friendly" toward religion, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Survey.
The poll said 50 percent of all respondents described Republicans as "more friendly toward religion."
From July 2006 to August 2007, the number of respondents describing Democrats as "more friendly toward religion" increased from 26 percent to 30 percent, according to the center.
Poll respondents who described Democrats as unfriendly toward religion decreased during the same period from 20 percent to 15 percent, the survey said.
The poll -- which used data collected from telephone interviews of 3,002 U.S. adults from August 1 to 18 -- had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points. E-mail to a friend