|Edwards, Clinton and Obama Describe Journeys of Faith|
|Jun 5, 2007||New York Times|
By Patrick Healy and Michael Luo
WASHINGTON -- One presidential hopeful described how prayer helped him survive his son’s death and his wife’s cancer diagnosis. Another spoke about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the role of faith in forgiving those who treat others unjustly. A third said of her husband’s infidelity, “I’m not sure I would have gotten through it without my faith.”
Intimate discussions of politics and religion have long been the province of Republican candidates for public office. But on Monday night, the three leading Democratic presidential hopefuls — former Senator John Edwards and Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton — opened up at an unusual televised forum about their faiths, the role of prayer in their public and private lives and the ways that religion informs their views on policy and government.
Each is aiming to make historic inroads among evangelical Christians and other committed churchgoers who have up to now been most linked with the Republican base. The candidates appeared eager not just to discuss their policies but also to discuss their personal faith journeys as they spoke, one after another, at George Washington University.
The event was organized by a liberal evangelical group, Sojourners, and televised by CNN.
The participants sought to walk a fine line between appealing to religious voters, while not turning off secular voters, who represent a crucial constituency for them.
Mr. Edwards, who has spoken extensively about poverty in moral terms but has shared little about his faith, demonstrated dexterity with speaking the language of Christian belief.
When asked whether he would be willing to discuss the “biggest sin you’ve ever committed,” Mr. Edwards laughed, paused for a moment and said that the “list is too long.”
“I’d have a very hard time telling you one thing, one specific sin,” he said, drawing applause. “If I’ve had a day in my 54 years that I haven’t sinned multiple times I’d be amazed. We all fall short, which is why we have to ask for forgiveness from the Lord.”
Mr. Edwards recalled growing up in the Southern Baptist Church but admitted that he had strayed as an adult. His faith, however, came “roaring back” in the midst of family crises. First was his son Wade’s death in a car accident, and then came the diagnosis for his wife, Elizabeth, and the recent recurrence of cancer.
“I’ve been through a faith journey in my life,” he said, adding that prayer “played a huge role in my survival” in those difficult moments.
“It’s the Lord who got me through,” he said.
Mrs. Clinton, who appeared comfortable chatting on stage with the CNN interviewer, Soledad O’Brien, and later roaming the stage while addressing the audience, drew the most rounds of applause. There were moments on stage that had an almost confessional quality for her.
Ms. O’Brien noted that Mrs. Clinton had shared relatively little about her faith in public but then carefully broached what has largely been the one issue that has been largely off limits in Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, her husband’s infidelity, asking whether her faith helped her deal with it.
“I’m not sure I would have gotten through it without my faith,” Mrs. Clinton said.
Mrs. Clinton said she took her faith “very seriously and very personally” but went on to say she came from a faith tradition, Methodism, that is “perhaps a little too suspicious of people who wear their faiths on their sleeves.”
She admitted that talking about her faith in public “doesn’t come naturally to me,” saying she often flashed back to “the Pharisees and all of the Sunday school lessons and readings I had as a child.”
She expressed gratitude for close friends and others who she said were praying for her, describing them as “prayer warriors” who “sustained me through a very difficult time.”
“I am very grateful 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,” she said, drawing a rousing round of appreciative applause.
When Ms. O’Brien asked what she asked God for in her prayers, Mrs. Clinton drew laughter from the audience when she said, “Sometimes, I say, ‘Oh Lord, why can’t you help me lose weight.’ ”
Mr. Obama dwelled somewhat more on policy and global concerns than on his personal faith or Scripture, in large part because of the nature of the questions that he faced. But he also found ways to interlace religion and policy.
Asked whether he believed that God took sides in a war, Mr. Obama reached for a famous quotation of Lincoln, about asking whether the nation is on God’s side.
At the same time, he said, it was important to remain “our brother’s keeper, our sister’s keeper” to advance the causes of justice and freedom.
Mr. Obama said he believed that evil existed in the world, noting, ‘I do think when planes crash into building and kill innocents, there’s evil there.” In other times of violence and war, however, he saw just causes like the Civil War and the defeat of fascism and the liberation of Europe.
He also said that his “starting point as president is to restore that sense that we are in this together” and that this commitment rose out of his faith. He promised to build alliances across partisan lines to improve early childhood education, children’s nutrition, workers’ pay and efforts to put criminal offenders on a better path.
“The notion that we take away education programs in prisons, to be tough on crime, makes absolutely no sense,” Mr. Obama said.
The event was the first in recent memory by Democrats that focused explicitly on faith and its values. It highlights how far the party has come since the 2004 presidential election in its efforts to appeal to religious voters and the openings Democrats see if the Republicans nominate a candidate who supports abortion rights and gay rights like Rudolph W. Giuliani or one who would be the first Mormon president, Mitt Romney.
Mara Vanderslice, director of religious outreach for the Kerry-Edwards campaign in 2004, said it would have been almost unimaginable for Democratic candidates to have participated in such an event in 2004.
Ms. Vanderslice recalled how difficult it was to nudge Mr. Kerry to talk about his Roman Catholic faith in a substantive way during the campaign.
“We would never have seen something like this last cycle,” she said.