Democratic Presidential Contenders Tell of Faith

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The three leading Democratic presidential contenders — New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, Illinois Sen. Barak Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards — sat down with liberal religious leaders Monday evening to talk about faith.


Hey, the three leading Democratic presidential candidates last night engaged in what they called a conversation with religious leaders about their faith. These candidates are getting personal in order to win the religious vote, as NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: The candidates appeared on the stage one by one, prepared to discuss their most private thoughts in the forum organized by the liberal religious group Sojourners. With little time for warm-ups, Senator Hillary Clinton was asked how she dealt with her husband's most public infidelity. Clinton replied that her faith gave her strength.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): I am very grateful that I 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, and that's all one can expect or hope for.

(Soundbite of applause)

HAGERTY: Clinton was warm and relaxed, sometimes leaning across the table as if sharing a cup of coffee with CNN moderator Soledad O'Brien. The New York senator is an active member of the United Methodist Church, but she rarely talks about her faith - a strategy that backfired on John Kerry when he ran for president in 2004.

Last night Clinton seemed to stir a course between Kerry's privacy and President Bush's very public faith that threads through many of his words and actions.

Sen. CLINTON: I come from a tradition that is perhaps a little too suspicious of people who wear their faith on their sleeves.

HAGERTY: Faith talk does come naturally to Senator Barack Obama, but there was little of that in the forum. Obama came to the Christian faith when he was in his 20s, working as a neighborhood organizer in Chicago. He has written about his adult conversion at Trinity United Church of Christ as a visceral transforming event. But last night the closest he came to talking about his faith was when he was asked if God was on America's side in Iraq, and he turned the question into an indictment of the Bush administration.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): I believe Guantanamo - the decision to detain people without charges is unjust. And the danger of using good versus evil in the context of war is it may lead us to be not as critical as we should be about our own actions. And that is something that I…

(Soundbite of applause)

Sen. OBAMA: …I'm very wary about.

HAGERTY: True to the religious nature of the evening, moderator O'Brien invited former Senator John Edwards to confess.

Ms. SOLEDAD O'BRIEN (CNN): What is the biggest sin you've ever committed?

HAGERTY: Edwards said the list is too long to single out one sin. The former senator, whose faith drives his politics on poverty and social justice, said he's had a volatile spiritual journey from Southern Baptist as a child to leaving his faith, to the time when it came, quote, "roaring back."

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Democratic Senator, North Carolina): I can tell you it is prayer that played a huge role in my survival. When Elizabeth and I lost our son, we were non-functional for some period of time, and it was the Lord that got me through that.

Professor Shaun CASEY (Wesley Theological Seminary): I think this is the opening salvo in what's going to be a huge volume of God talk.

HAGERTY: Shaun Casey, who teaches at Wesley Seminary, says last night's program shows Democrats are trying to wrest God from the religious conservatives, and that they've learned a lesson from John Kerry.

Prof. CASEY: I think the person who's going to be the president in the United States in January 2009 is the one who tells the most compelling personal story. And if faith has been a part of your story, you are insane not to tell that.

HAGERTY: Casey says what's most remarkable about last night was that the event took place at all.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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