Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton made what some called a "gutsy move" this past week when she appeared at a conservative evangelical megachurch to talk about AIDS.
Initially, some felt ill at ease over the New York senator's appearance at the Global Summit on AIDS and the Church hosted by Saddleback Valley Community Church because of her support for abortion and gay rights, which most evangelicals are opposed to. However, her emphasis on her Christian faith – which she regularly backed with Bible quotations – and concerns for the AIDS pandemic softened some evangelicals' view of the candidate often painted by conservatives as liberal, calculative and cold.
"I saw a softer side of her that I haven't seen before," said Saddleback Church member Cindy Logan to WorldNetDaily. "She was very articulate. I liked her approach.
"I liked the fact that she's been to Africa, she's been with people who have been affected by AIDS, and she's here because of her heart for people. I appreciated that."
Another member of the Lake Forest, Calif.-based church, Tonie Kennedy, said inviting Clinton "was a good decision" after hearing her speech.
"It shows me she has her own faith," Kennedy said, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, "and that she has an interest in what's going on in the churches."
Clinton shared about her upbringing in the Methodist Church and vowed to spend $50 billion on treatment, prevention and care for global HIV/AIDS by 2013 if she is elected, according to Reuters.
She also promised to "set a goal of ending all deaths from malaria in Africa" – where 1 million die annually from a preventable and treatable disease – by the end of a second term, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
"For many of us, the golden rule calls on us to act. Not only can we now talk about AIDS in church, but the Church is leading the way," Clinton said of Saddleback's AIDS initiative, according to Reuters.
The former first lady reportedly won a standing ovation from the audience of over 1,500 Christian pastors, nongovernmental organizations and church members.
Yet other Christian leaders remain opposed to her presence at Saddleback.
"What Saddleback is doing is helping raise her profile as a legitimate presidential candidate in the eyes of evangelical Christians, and I think that is a huge error," said Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, according to OneNewsNow.
The American Family Association, which has 2.8 million supporters, operates OneNewsNow.
Clinton was the only one out of six presidential candidates invited to accept Saddleback Pastor Rick Warren's invitation to appear in person at the summit. All other invited candidates appeared via satellite.
Last year, Sen. Barack Obama's (D-Ill.) appearance at the Saddleback AIDS summit caused significantly larger uproar than Clinton's appearance this year. Pro-life groups organized protests against Obama and demanded Warren rescind his invitation for the pro-abortion senator to appear on the church stage.
Warren had responded – as he did again this year to opposition to inviting Clinton – that although he may differ with people over certain issues, he and Christians should work together on the common cause of helping millions of people living with HIV/AIDS.
Experts have noted that Clinton has much to gain from a favorable reception at the Saddleback conference.
An August Pew Research Center survey found that 58 percent of white evangelical Protestants surveyed that identified themselves as Democrat or leaning towards that party had an unfavorable impression of Clinton, Pew research director Scott Keeter said to Reuters.
A good reception at the influential megachurch might help Clinton make inroads among the evangelical voters.
"Sen. Clinton has the boldness to broaden her base…it shows she's done her homework and she's open to new ideas," said Vivian Berryhill, president and founder of the National Coalition of Pastors' Spouses, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
"We're very religious in this country, and these are the people who helped elect [President] Bush," Berryhill said as she motioned around the Saddleback worship hall. "So for her to come here is a gutsy move."
The third annual Global Summit on AIDS and the Church concluded on Friday, and led up to the first-ever Youth Summit on Saturday, Dec. 1 – World AIDS Day also hosted by Saddleback Church.