By PETER BAKER and RACHEL L. SWARNS
WASHINGTON — About two hours after declaring his support for same-sex marriage last week, President Obama gathered eight or so African-American ministers on a conference call to explain himself. He had struggled with the decision, he said, but had come to believe it was the right one.
The ministers, though, were not all as enthusiastic. A vocal few made it clear that the president’s stand on gay marriage might make it difficult for them to support his re-election.
“They were wrestling with their ability to get over his theological position,” said the Rev. Delman Coates, the pastor of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Md., who was on the call.
In the end, Mr. Coates, who supports civil marriages for gay men and lesbians, said that most of the pastors, regardless of their views on this issue, agreed to “work aggressively” on behalf of the president’s campaign. But not everyone. “Gay marriage is contrary to their understanding of Scripture,” Mr. Coates said. “There are people who are really wrestling with this.”
In the hours following Mr. Obama’s politically charged announcement on Wednesday, the president and his team embarked on a quiet campaign to contain the possible damage among religious leaders and voters. He also reached out to one or more of the five spiritual leaders he calls regularly for religious guidance, and his aides contacted other religious figures who have been supportive in the past.
The damage-control effort underscored the anxiety among Mr. Obama’s advisers about the consequences of the president’s revised position just months before what is expected to be a tight re-election vote. While hailed by liberals and gay-rights leaders for making a historic breakthrough, Mr. Obama recognized that much of the country is uncomfortable with or opposed to same-sex marriage, including many in his own political coalition.
The issue of religious freedom has become a delicate one for Mr. Obama, especially after the recent furor over an administration mandate that religiously affiliated organizations offer health insurance covering contraceptives. After complaints from Catholic leaders that the mandate undercut their faith, Mr. Obama offered a compromise that would maintain coverage for contraception while not requiring religious organizations to pay for it, but critics remained dissatisfied.
In taking on same-sex marriage, Mr. Obama made a point of couching his views in religious terms. “We’re both practicing Christians,” the president said of his wife and himself in the ABC News interview in which he discussed his new views. “And obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others.”
He added that what he thought about was “not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf but it’s also the golden rule, you know? Treat others the way you would want to be treated.”
After the interview, Mr. Obama hit the phones. Among those he called was one of the religious leaders he considers a touchstone, the Rev. Joel C. Hunter, the pastor of a conservative megachurch in Florida.
“Some of the faith communities are going to be afraid that this is an attack against religious liberty,” Mr. Hunter remembered telling the president.
“Absolutely not,” Mr. Obama insisted. “That’s not where we’re going, and that’s not what I want.”
Even some of Mr. Obama’s friends in the religious community warned that he risked alienating followers, particularly African-Americans who have been more skeptical of the idea than other Democratic constituencies.
The Rev. Jim Wallis, another religious adviser to Mr. Obama and the president and chief executive of Sojourners, a left-leaning evangelical organization, said that he had fielded calls since the announcement from pastors across the country, including African-American and Hispanic ministers. Religious leaders, he said, are deeply divided, with some seeing it as the government forcing clergy to accept a definition of marriage that they consider anathema to their teachings.
Mr. Wallis said that it was clear to him that the president’s decision was a matter of personal conscience, not public policy. But he said that some religious leaders wanted to hear Mr. Obama say that explicitly. “We hope the president will reach out to people who disagree with him on this,” Mr. Wallis said. “The more conservative churches need to know, need to be reassured that their religious liberty is going to be respected here.”
Mr. Obama has reached out to Mr. Wallis, Mr. Hunter and three other ministers for telephone prayer sessions and discussions about the intersection of religion and public policy.
Mr. Wallis would not say whether he heard from Mr. Obama as Mr. Hunter did. The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, another of the five and the senior pastor of Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston, said he did not. “He doesn’t need to talk with me about that,” Mr. Caldwell said.
The other two pastors, Bishop T. D. Jakes, a nationally known preaching powerhouse who fills stadiums and draws 30,000 worshipers to his church in Dallas, and the Rev. Otis Moss Jr., did not respond to messages Friday.
Mr. Obama began reaching out within hours of his announcement on Wednesday. At 4:30 p.m., he convened the African-American ministers on the call.
“It was very clear to me that he had arrived at this conclusion after much reflection, introspection and dialogue with family and staff and close friends,” said Mr. Coates, who remains confident that the undecided pastors on the call will ultimately back the president in November. “There are more public policy issues that we agree upon than this issue of private morality in which there’s some difference.”
That is a calculation the White House is counting on. The president’s strategists hope that any loss of support among black and independent moderates will be more than made up by proponents of gay marriage. But Mr. Obama’s aides declined to comment and opted not to send anyone to the Sunday talk shows for fear of elevating it further.
Religious conservative leaders said the president’s decision changed the calculus of the election. “I think the president this past week took six or seven states he carried in 2008 and put them in play with this one ill-conceived position that he’s taken,” Gary Bauer, the former presidential candidate, said on the CNN program “State of the Union.” On the same program, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said, “I’ve gotten calls from pastors across the nation, white and black pastors, who have said, ‘You know what? I’m not sitting on the sidelines anymore.’ ”
Establishment Republicans, though, were eager to shift the subject. “For those people that this is their issue, they have a clear choice,” Reince Preibus, the party chairman, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “But I happen to believe that, at the end of the day, however, this election is still going to be about the economy.”
Mr. Obama’s efforts to mollify religious leaders came after a tumultuous week as he lagged behind Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in advocating same-sex marriage. A senior administration official who asked not to be named said the White House contacted religious and Congressional leaders and Democratic candidates only after the president’s announcement.
Among those contacted was Cameron Strang, editor of Relevant magazine and a young evangelical leader, but he was on vacation. By contrast, the office of Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the Catholic archbishop of New York, said he had not heard from the president after publicly calling his decision “deeply saddening.”
Mr. Hunter’s cellphone buzzed shortly after the Wednesday interview. “I’m not at all surprised he didn’t call me before because I would have tried to talk him out of it,” Mr. Hunter said.
“My interpretation of Scriptures, I can’t arrive at the same conclusion,” he said. “He totally understood that. One of the reasons he called was to make sure our relationship would be fine, and of course it would be.”