Clinton And Obama Address Religion In Effort To Reassure Democratic Voters

Some recent presidential candidates, from John Kerry and Al Gore to Bob Dole, weren't comfortable talking publicly about their faith. No matter how strongly they believed, they considered religion mostly a private matter. And it's perhaps no coincidence that all three lost their bids for the White House.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama aren't so reticent.

In an effort to reassure religious voters about their character and values, the Democratic presidential rivals are talking freely and frequently about their beliefs. The most recent example came Sunday night at a "Compassion Forum" on faith and justice at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa.

The issue of religion in public life also will be underscored this week when Pope Benedict XVI visits Washington, where he will meet with President Bush and attend other events. Bush has been open about his Christian beliefs throughout his presidency.

In addition to quarreling over how to interpret Obama's comments about whether Pennsylvania's working-class voters are "bitter," Clinton and Obama offered some deeply personal accounts of their private convictions.

Asked about remarks he made at a San Francisco fundraiser that some voters cling to religion and guns to alleviate their bitterness about economic problems, Obama said, "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 a demeaning of a faith that I myself embrace. When economic hardship hits, they have faith, they have family, they have traditions that have been passed on from generation to generation. Those are not bad things. Those are the things that are left."

Clinton kept up her attack, arguing that Obama's comments were "elitist, out of touch, and, frankly, patronizing." She said Obama was giving the false impression that Democrats disdain churchgoers and hunters, which has hurt the party's candidates in the past.

Clinton said her United Methodist faith has always been important to her and has sustained her in difficult times. In the past, she has said her religion encouraged her to do good works and commit herself to improving society. "You know, I have, ever since I've been a little girl, felt the presence of God in my life," she said. "And it has been a gift of grace that has, for me, been incredibly sustaining." She explained that she felt God's grace when her husband was unfaithful to her and on other occasions. "It didn't have to be a hard time," she added. "You know, it could be taking a walk in the woods. It could be watching a sunset."

Obama said his Christian faith encouraged his own commitment to social justice. He repeated his condemnation of the controversial sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor in Chicago, whose tirades have been considered anti-American and antiwhite. But Obama said Wright has also helped many people in the community.

By Kenneth T. Walsh