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Clinton, Obama put politics aside to discuss faith

  • Story Highlights
  • Clinton criticizes, Obama explains controversial comments at faith forum
  • Both Democratic candidates speak candidly about moral, spiritual dilemmas
  • Evangelical leadership has split over presumptive GOP nominee John McCain
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By Rebecca Sinderbrand
CNN
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(CNN) -- On Sunday, after a tumultuous campaign season where religion -- both rumor and reality -- has had a starring role, the two remaining Democratic White House hopefuls, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, again ventured onto terrain that has been dominated by Republican candidates.

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Illinois Sen. Barack Obama says religion is "a bulwark, a foundation when other things aren't going well."

It was a risk-filled journey for both: social issues like abortion and gay marriage have long been sticking points for Democrats in their efforts to reach some religious voters.

But in separate appearances at Faith in Public Life's Compassion Forum at Messiah College -- only the second such event in Democratic presidential campaign history -- both spoke of their faith in starkly personal terms.

On a day when her campaign released a new ad talking about her struggles to "climb the mountain," Clinton told CNN's Campbell Brown and Newsweek's Jon Meacham. "I don't think that I could have made my life's journey without being anchored in God's grace and without having that, you know, sense of forgiveness and unconditional love.

"And I am not going to point to one or another matter. I mean, some of my struggles and challenges have been extremely public," Clinton said. "And I have talked about how I have been both guided and supported through those, trying to find my own way through, because, for me, my faith has given me the confidence to make decisions that were right for me, whether anybody else agreed with me or not." Download Clinton's remarks (Windows) (iPod)

Obama said that to him, "religion is a bulwark, a foundation when other things aren't going well. That's true in my own life, through trials and tribulations. ..."

Obama later added: "I am a devout Christian ... I started my work working with churches in the shadow of steel plants that had closed on the south side of Chicago ..." Download Obama's comments (Windows) (iPod)

"...Nobody in a presidential campaign on the Democratic side in recent memory has done more to reach out to the church and talk about, what are our obligations religiously, in terms of doing good works, and how does that inform our politics?" Video Watch reactions to the candidates' statements at forum »

For years, the evangelical community has largely supported Republican presidential candidates.

However this year, evangelical leaders have split over presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, who is struggling to mend fences with some evangelical luminaries like James Dobson who have expressed disappointment with his selection.

But Democrats hoping to reach religious voters still face an uphill climb. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey suffered a rift with the national party on abortion in an incident that continues to rankle some religious voters more than a decade-and-a-half later.

So on Sunday, in front of a religious crowd, both candidates worked their way carefully through the rhetorical minefield that still surrounds the issue.

Clinton, asked whether she believed life begins at conception, replied that "the potential for life begins at conception," adding that the Methodist church, her denomination, had "struggled with this issue."

"...And as some of you've heard me discuss before, I think abortion should remain legal -- but it needs to be safe and rare," she said.

Obama -- who had sparked controversy several weeks ago when he said he would not want to see his daughters "burdened" with an unwanted child -- said it was important to "acknowledge that there is a moral dimension to abortion, which I think that all too often those of us who are pro-choice have not talked about or tried to tap down."

The candidates spent much of the forum reflecting on moral and spiritual dilemmas, but the evening was still marked by more earthly concerns.

Obama said last week at a fundraiser that decades of lost jobs and unfulfilled promises from Washington have left some Pennsylvanians "bitter." He said they were "clinging 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."

On Sunday, Clinton said Obama's remarks were "elitist, out of touch and frankly, patronizing." Video Watch Clinton discuss Obama's "bitter" comments »

At the forum, Clinton said those remarks fed into religious voters' impression of the Democratic Party "as a party that didn't understand and respect the values and the way of life of many of our fellow Americans."

"We had two very good men, and men of faith, run for president in 2000 and 2004," she said, referring to Al Gore and John Kerry. "But large segments of the electorate concluded that they did not really understand, or relate to, or frankly respect their ways of life."

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In his appearance right after Clinton's, Obama responded. "I know that Al Gore was mentioned earlier," he said. "By the way, I have to say, I think Al Gore won. ..."

"...[W]hat 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," said Obama. "Those aren't bad things. That's what they have left." Video Watch Obama explain "bitter" comments at forum » E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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