Clinton, Edwards and Obama Discuss Their Faith at Forum

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 5, 2007

In an unprecedented forum, the three leading Democratic presidential candidates described how faith influences both their politics and their personal lives, with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton responding to a question about her husband's infidelity by saying, "I'm not sure I would have gotten through it without my faith."

"I've had a grounding in faith that gave me the courage and the strength to do what I thought was right, regardless of what the world thought," Clinton (N.Y.) told a crowd of more than 1,000 in an auditorium at George Washington University.

At the forum, organized by Sojourners, a liberal evangelical group based in Washington, Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and former senator John Edwards (N.C.) each stood on stage separately for 15 minutes to answer questions from moderator Soledad O'Brien of CNN and a group of ministers and religious leaders. The questions were wide-ranging, from the role of evil in the world to perhaps the most pointed of the night, when Edwards was asked to name the biggest sin he had committed.

"If I had a day in my 54 years where I haven't sinned I would be surprised," he said, declining to specify. "I sin every day; we are all sinners."

Only the top three candidates in the Democratic field were invited to the event. That all three attended underscores the party's efforts to win over voters interested in issues related to moral values -- particularly white Catholics, an important swing vote in recent years.

None of the candidates offered answers that strayed far from Democratic Party orthodoxy, but their openness in discussing their faith was unusual. Clinton and Edwards said they pray daily, and Edwards added that "prayer has played a huge role in my life, it keeps me going." He said prayer helped him handle the death of his 16-year-old son Wade in 1996 and most recently the diagnosis of a recurrence of breast cancer in his wife, Elizabeth.

Clinton described herself as a "praying person," and credited her ability to get through difficult times to her "extended faith family" and what she described as "prayer warriors" -- friends and strangers who have prayed for her over the years. She said she prays for courage and discernment and joked that some of her prayers were "trivial and self-serving," including requests to lose weight faster, that inspire "eye-rolling" from God.

The questions were not the same for each candidate, and Obama, who of the three has spoken the most about his faith in campaign appearances, said the least about his religion in this forum. He instead discussed his belief that evil exists in the world and said "there is a moral element" to his view that pay for corporate chief executives has become excessive. He repeatedly invoked the biblical phrase "I am my brother's keeper."

Edwards, while noting that his oldest daughter supports same-sex marriage, said he supports only civil unions.

Obama answered a question about the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians by casting blame on both sides, saying, "There is no doubt Palestinians have been put in situations . . . we wouldn't want our own families put in," but adding that Israelis have been the victims of terrorist attacks.

Clinton indicated that she thinks that both sides in the abortion debate should be more willing to compromise, a stance she has taken consistently throughout her career but has rarely spoken about in her presidential campaign. "In talking about abortion being safe, legal and rare, I mean rare," she said in response to a question on the subject. "The pro-life and pro-choice communities have not been willing to find much common ground."

The candidate forum was part of an annual Sojourners conference called Pentecost, where leaders on the religious left gather. Obama spoke at the event last year.

Since 2004, Democrats have extensively debated how to win over religious voters. Strategists say their candidates' goal is less about appealing to conservative white evangelicals -- who according to exit polls cast almost 80 percent of their votes for Bush in 2004 -- and more about capturing moderate Catholics and mainline Protestants.

The three leading Democratic presidential contenders have all hired religious outreach advisers, although it is unclear if these aides have the kind of influence that the campaigns' liaisons to labor groups or more traditional constituencies enjoy. In 2004, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) had a religious outreach council advising his bid for the White House, but he ignored many of its ideas, including delivering a speech at a major Christian college.

Whether the candidates hire staff in the early primary states to focus on religious outreach will be "one indicator of how seriously they will take that," said Mara Vanderslice, who conducted religious outreach for Kerry.

Yesterday's forum underscored an unusual dynamic of the campaign: that in many ways the Democratic candidates are more eager to discuss their faith than the Republicans are. On the GOP side, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) rarely discuss their faith publicly, while former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's Mormonism makes many religious conservatives uneasy.

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