GRANTHAM, Pa. (CNS) -- The two Democratic senators seeking their party's nomination for president sought to define themselves in terms of their religious faith in an April 13 forum at Messiah College in Grantham that was broadcast live on CNN.
Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Clinton of New York talked about the role of faith in their lives, about the place they think religion should hold in civil society, about their beliefs on when life begins and how that influences their political stances on abortion and end-of-life care.
The Compassion Forum, held at an evangelical liberal arts college in a state holding its Democratic presidential primary April 22, marked a significant shift in the way Democratic candidates are willing to talk about religion.
"This wouldn't have happened even a couple of years ago," said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., after the forum.
Both candidates have been fairly open about the influence of religious faith in their lives, Casey told Catholic News Service. But even four years ago, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the Democratic nominee, was clearly uncomfortable trying to talk about his Catholic faith and that is widely believed to have hurt him with some voters.
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"I think this was a very important forum for the country and for the Democratic Party," Casey said.
The Compassion Forum invited Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, to join the event, but his campaign declined, citing a schedule conflict.
Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA and a board member of the Compassion Forum, told CNS the best part of the event was that it showed both candidates are sensitive to the concerns of the faith community.
Sometimes very personal questions, such as one for Clinton asking her to describe moments when she has felt the presence of the Holy Spirit, were posed by Newsweek editor Jon Meacham and CNN anchor Campbell Brown.
Questions on the morality of maintaining the American standard of living in the face of global poverty, whether the candidates support abstinence education or other steps to prevent the spread of AIDS, and how their religious convictions might influence their policy on science also were posed by religious leaders who make up the board of the Compassion Forum.
Obama, a member of an evangelical Christian church in Chicago, was clearly more comfortable with the faith terminology and personal revelations the questioners tried to elicit from the candidates.
But, pressed to point to specific moments which she thought were examples of God acting in her life, Clinton, a Methodist, acknowledged both that such personal experiences are difficult for her to discuss but that she thinks it's important to share them.
"I worry that you have to walk the walk of faith," she said. "Talking about it is important because it's important to share that experience. But I also believe that, you know, faith is just -- it's grace. It's love. It's mystery. It's provocation. It is everything that makes life and its purpose meaningful as a human being."
"It is a serious search and we are so fortunate because we have taken the gifts that God gave us," she said. "We have created this democracy where we choose our leaders and we have to be more mindful of how important and serious a business this is."
Brown asked Obama to respond to criticism that the forum's focus on religion itself was inappropriate because religion has too much influence in public life.
Calling that "a false debate," Obama noted that some people, particularly in the Democratic Party, believe that any influence of religion in the public square violates the constitutional separation of church and state. Meanwhile, others, particularly some members of the Republican Party, he said, believe there should be no separation between religion and government.
"I think both extremes are wrong," he said. "What I believe is that all of us come to the public square with our own values and our ideals and our ethics, what we believe. And people of religious faith have the same right to come to that public square with values and ideals that are rooted in their faith.
"And they have the right to describe them in religious terms, which has been part of our history," Obama said. "What religious language can often do is allow us to get outside of ourselves and mobilize around a common good."
But there also are obligations for using religious faith influences in public, he added.
"What those of us of religious faith have to do when we're in the public square is to translate our language into a universal language that can appeal to everybody," Obama said.
Speaking in separate sessions during the forum, each candidate was asked whether they believe life begins at conception, a key to many people's beliefs -- and the Catholic Church's teaching -- that abortion in any form, including a so-called morning-after pill, takes a human life.
"I believe that the potential for life begins at conception," Clinton said. She noted that the Methodist church has struggled with the question. "But for me, it is also not only about a potential life; it is about the other lives involved."
After soul-searching on the question of abortion, she said, she has concluded that in a pluralistic nation "individuals must be entrusted to make this profound decision, because the alternative would be such an intrusion of government authority that it would be very difficult to sustain in our kind of open society."
Obama said he has not "come to a firm resolution" on the question of when life begins. "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? So I don't presume to know the answer to that question. 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."
Both Obama and Clinton said abortion opponents and those who say it should be legal, like the two candidates, need to find areas of common ground.
"Number one, it requires us 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 (have) tried to tamp down," said Obama. "I think that's a mistake because I think all of us understand that it is a wrenching choice for anybody to think about."
Clinton said she has spent many years trying to make abortion rare, "trying to create the conditions where women had other choices," such as adoption and foster care, and working to reduce teen pregnancy rates.
Obama said if such steps can reduce the number of abortions and adoption is clearly an option for people "then I think we will take some of the edge off the debate."
Father Snyder said the group hopes to host another such discussion in September with McCain and whoever will be the Democratic nominee.