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Compassion Forum Clings to Religion

Obama and Clinton face more questions on beliefs, personal piety at Messiah College event.

Well, at least this time CNN didn't ask the presidential candidates to disclose the biggest sin they've committed.

But while Soledad O'Brien's infamous question from the June 2007 Sojourners Presidential Forum didn't make an appearance, much of tonight's "Compassion Forum" at Messiah College had the same vibe as that event: questions about policy and decision-making were overshadowed by the journalists' odd stabs at what they thought religious folks really wanted to know. As at the Sojourners event, for example, the moderator asked about literal seven-day creationism.

Faith in Public Life, the group that organized and sponsored the forum, had billed it as "probing discussions of policies related to pressing moral issues that are bridging ideological divides now more than ever, including poverty, global AIDS, climate change and human rights."

Discussions of policies weren't probed very far, however. Instead, on the Global Day for Darfur, co-moderator Jon Meacham asked Sen. Hillary Clinton, "Many people here are concerned about Darfur and a number of other humanitarian issues. Why do you think it is that a loving God allows innocent people to suffer?"

"You know, that is the subject of generations of commentary and debate," Clinton responded. "And I don't know. I can't wait to ask him. … [But] there is no doubt in my mind that God calls us to respond. … For whatever reason it exists, its very existence is a call to action."

Call to action: AIDS

While sparks flew between the two candidates over Obama's recent remarks about "bitter" Americans "clinging to guns and religion," both candidates somewhat surprisingly praised President Bush, particularly for his anti-AIDS program in Africa.

"I commend President Bush for his PEPFAR initiative. It was a very bold and important commitment, but it didn't go far enough in opening up the door to generic [drugs] and getting the costs down," said Clinton, who also lauded Bush's efforts after the south Asian tsunami.

"This is an area where — this doesn't happen very often, so everybody should take note — where I compliment George Bush," Obama said. "I actually think that the PEPFAR program is one of the success stories of this administration."

Obama also supported abstinence education in fighting AIDS in Africa. "I also think that contraception is important," he added. "I also think that treatment is important; I also think that we have to do more to make antiviral drugs available to people who are in extreme poverty. So I don't want to pluck out one facet of it. Now, that doesn't mean that non-for-profit groups can't focus on one thing while the government focuses on other things. I think we want to have a comprehensive approach."

Reducing abortion

Both candidates also reiterated their support for abortion rights, but said they wanted to reduce the number of abortions in the country.

"I believe that the potential for life begins at conception," Clinton said, when asked if life begins at conception. "I am a Methodist, as you know. My church has struggled with this issue. In fact, you can look at the Methodist Book of Discipline and see the contradiction and the challenge of trying to sort that very profound question out. But for me, it is also not only about a potential life; it is about the other lives involved. … And I have spent many years now, as a private citizen, as first lady, and now as senator, trying to make it rare, trying to create the conditions where women had other choices."

Asked the same question, Obama responded, "This is something that I have not, I think, come to a firm resolution on. I think it's very hard to know what that means, when life begins. Is it when a cell separates? Is it when the soul stirs? … What I know, as I've said before, is that there is something extraordinarily powerful about potential life and that that has a moral weight to it that we take into consideration when we're having these debates."

Meacham also asked Obama to clarify his earlier remarks that he didn't want his daughters "punished with a baby" if they got pregnant as unmarried teenagers. "Well, keep in mind, on that same day, I said children are miracles," Obama responded. "If, at the age of 12 or 13, they made what I would consider to be a mistake, in having sex or unprotected sex, and ended up getting pregnant, I think that statistically we know 12- or 13-year-olds who are having children are much more likely to be impoverished, are much more likely to have health problems, are much more likely to have trouble raising that child. And so all I meant was we want to prevent teen pregnancies.'

'Cling' static

Obama's recent comments about economically depressed small towns were a major theme in the forum, and provided the only real area of disagreement between the two candidates. In a speech last week, Obama had said that residents of the towns "get bitter. They cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

"It seem[ed] so much in line with what often we are charged with," Clinton said. "Someone goes to a closed-door fundraiser in San Francisco and makes comments that do seem elitist, out of touch and, frankly, patronizing."

Clinton was careful to mention that she was not denying that Obama is a man of faith. "We had two very good men and men of faith run for President in 2000 and 2004," she said. "But large segments of the electorate concluded that they did not really understand or relate to or frankly respect their ways of life."

Obama said his wording "may have been clumsy," but noted, "Scripture talks about clinging to what's good. … Religion is a bulwark, a foundation when other things aren't going well. That's true in my own life, through trials and tribulations. And so what I was referring to was in no way demeaning a faith that I, myself, embrace. What I was saying is that when economic hardship hits in these communities, what people have is they've got family, they've got their faith, they've got the traditions that have been passed onto them from generation to generation. Those aren't bad things. That's what they have left."

The original Obama quote was the subject of much political discussion over the weekend, and observers after the debate wondered if the subject would now turn to whether Obama thinks "antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment." "aren't bad things," either.

Winners and losers

Few attendees of the Forum felt there was a clear winner between Obama and Clinton at the event, which makes some sense since it was not a debate, but rather two separate conversations. (The two candidates shared the stage for only a few seconds.)

But most agreed that there was a clear loser: John McCain. Even the president of the Messiah College Republicans said the presumptive Republican nominee hurt himself, particularly with religious conservatives, by declining an invitation to participate. Attendees across the political spectrum seemed to agree that the Compassion Forum was a paragon of Democrats' strong efforts to reach out to religious voters even as McCain has shied away from more overt discussions of faith and how it affects his policies.

Political candidates' fortunes aside, the forum likely served as a boon to both Faith in Public Life (FPL) and Messiah College. The former is a relatively new organization founded after the 2004 election that demonstrated that it can attract not just political candidates, but also religious leaders from a broad spectrum (in fact, evangelicals dominated the FPL-picked questions from the floor). It's tempting to call it a rival to Sojourners, but the two groups closely cooperate and have different missions. In its earlier days FPL was slightly to the left of Sojourners. More recently, however, it seems to have moved away from an emphasis on countering the Religious Right, and has focused more on building bridges across religious and ideological boundaries.

The forum served to spotlight Messiah College, which constitutes nearly the entire town of Grantham, Pennsylvania. The school of 2,800 students has been the envy of many colleges — not just Christian ones — for its ability to attract big-name music acts to campus. The National plays here in a few weeks, and seniors remember fondly seeing Bob Dylan play here when they were freshmen. Now, hosting the two Democratic candidates just days before Pennsylvania's Democratic presidential primary, the students are abuzz about the campus's "cultural engagement." There's an irony here, since the school was founded by the Anabaptist Brethren in Christ Church in 1909. It now describes itself as "committed to an embracing evangelical spirit rooted in the Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan traditions of the Christian Church."

CNN has a transcript of the event.

Related Elsewhere:

More articles on the 2008 presidential campaign are available in our full-coverage section.

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