Democrats Rock Soledad And The Religious Left

In Washington last night, a brave interest group, Sojourners, used its clout to insist that only the most viable Democratic candidates participate in its presidential forum, and much value was extracted.

The topic was supposed to be poverty; this was placarded throughout the auditorium at George Washington University. But most of the questions, including several astoundingly blunt ones from narrator Soledad O'Brien, probed the content of the candidates' religious faiths.

Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards are all Christians, and at first glance, their Christianity seems similar. None offered a novel way to mediate between personal religious beliefs and a secular democracy; each seemed to suggest that their faith influenced them enormously, and yet their policies would not reflect any particular faith tradition or set of beliefs. (Edwards coined a new word: "faith beliefs" -- to try and make a point about religious diversity.)

Still, the forum allowed the candidates to draw out their differences. Edwards spoke about his life and faith journey; how his Lord sustained him through tragedy; how his Lord walks with him daily. Edwards was the only candidate to talk about Jesus in such a personal context. (One would assume that Edwards was a Southern Baptist; he was raised into that church but later became a Methodist).

Obama did not use the occasion to speak at length about the intersection between faith and reason; he’s done that before. Asked about whether God takes sides in war; he said no -- quoting Abraham Lincoln, he said that the duty of a country was to act as Godly as possible in the conduct of war. Obama did not discuss the content of his beliefs. He instead focused his answers on policy and left it for the audience to assume that his faith influenced his actions. At one point, he praised evangelical conservatives for agreeing with liberals that the state has an obligation to offer educational opportunities to convicts who've served their sentences. And he said that it was not at all improper for religious beliefs to "express themselves through our government."

Hillary, reared and remaining a Midwestern Methodist, mastered the format. She was supremely confident, handling a question about her husband's infidelities without so much as a flinch or an extra blink. She was self-deprecating, admitting that she often prayed for "trivial" things -- "Oh lord, why can't you help me lose weight." She was humble; speaking of the turbulent last three years of her husband's presidency, she said was "not sure I would have survived through it without my faith." She was deft; questioned about a middle ground on abortion, she launched into a four minute disquisition on how pro-lifers and pro-choicers could -- no, really, had to -- work together. David Kuo, the former Bush administration official who’s now a professional bass fisherman and Washington editor of beliefnet.com, pointed out to me after the event that Clinton had effortlessly weaved evangelical code words into her answers. She spoke of her prayer warriors; of witnessing; of MYF – Methodist youth forums.

What is the religious left, really? Is it a movement? Is it a demographic cleavage that has no political significance? Is it organized? Does it have a core? What are its priorities? How does it reconcile church with state? Does it have aspirations to attain client status along with other Democratic interest groups?

That Sojournors founder Rev. Jim Wallis is influential is not in dispute. The forum was proof enough of that. That the Democratic candidates are attentive to religion and values is evident from how often the frontrunners talk about it. But there was no real clarity to last night's forum. Wallis told the audience that he wanted the forum to focus on poverty -- its motto was "Vote Out Poverty," he said -- but only two of the roughly 20 questions touched on the issue.

Perhaps this was a function of the artifice imposed by CNN, which broadcast the event. Soledad O’Brien asked the type of questions that the press likes to ask conservatives: how do you reconcile young earth creationism with evolution? Gay marriage? To Edwards: what's your worst sin? (O’Brien was almost booed for that one.).When O’Brien interrupted one of Obama's long, though surprisingly interesting verbal essays on poverty; he dismissed her with an exaggerated sideways flick of his eyes.