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Dr. Shirley Caesar-Williams prays for President-elect Barack Obama during a church service at Mount Calvary Word of God Church in Raleigh, N.C., on Sunday

Associated Press

Dr. Shirley Caesar-Williams prays for President-elect Barack Obama during a church service at Mount Calvary Word of God Church in Raleigh, N.C., on Sunday

As he vaulted into national acclaim with his 2004 Democratic convention speech, Barack Obama directly took on the assumption that his party should cede religious voters to the Republicans.

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"We worship an awesome God in the blue states," he said, pointedly adopting words from a song familiar to churchgoers, particularly younger ones.

Obama's four-year effort to narrow the gap between Democratic and Republican support among so-called "faith voters" paid off last week, helping secure his election as the next president.

Exit polls showed the dramatic effect: Obama won 43 percent of people who attend church weekly — eight points higher than 2004 Democratic nominee John F. Kerry. Among occasional worshipers, Obama won 57 percent, 11 points higher than Kerry, according to the National Election Pool exit survey.

When looking at how members of different faiths voted, most striking was the movement among Catholics. They sided with President Bush by 52 percent to 47 percent in 2004. But this year, they went for Obama 54 percent to 45 percent. That meant Obama, a non-Catholic, improved by 7 percentage points among Catholics over one of their own, Kerry.

"Obama did better than Kerry among pretty much every religious group," said Greg Smith, a fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life who analyzed the poll results.

Even among the most Republican-leaning religious group, voters who described themselves as born again or evangelicals, Obama improved on Kerry's standing — although he came in a distant second to GOP nominee John McCain. Kerry had won 21 percent of evangelical voters, while Obama earned 26 percent.

Some of the shift might have resulted from changes in the electorate — both black and Hispanic participation grew, and both groups are regular churchgoers. And certainly all voters found themselves upended by the financial crisis that struck with a vengeance in early autumn.

There is no doubt that secular voters are far more supportive of Obama than religious ones, according to the exit poll. But Obama's campaign went after religious voters and took advantage of his connections to influential leaders.

Nearly two years ago, when few rank-and-file voters knew much about him, the Illinois senator stood alongside nationally known author and pastor Rick Warren at his Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., for a televised AIDS conference.

In the summer, Obama gained notice among religious voters when he pledged to expand a controversial program to give government grants to churches and small community groups. The proposal, which would build on the Bush administration's efforts to direct federal money to church groups, was announced in Zanesville, Ohio, a hotly contested state that Obama won on Tuesday.

His convention this year included a celebration of faith. The party platform endorsed by Obama — while not backing away from its support for abortion rights — emphatically reached out to women who choose to raise their babies with programs meant to ease their struggle.

(ATTN: National editors) (Includes optional trims) 11/09/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 4, 2010 9:27am]

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