Liberal Evangelicals Host Presidential Forum Tonight

Though this week's political calendar is dominated by the New Hampshire presidential debates--the full Democratic field faced off on Sunday night and Republicans rumble on Tuesday--a less hyped presidential candidates forum could make for more interesting viewing.

The liberal Christian group Sojourners is hosting a forum in Washington, D.C., tonight for the Democrats' three front-runners, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. It will be the first candidates' event of the '08 presidential season--and in recent memory--to focus entirely on the issue of poverty and how the candidates' personal faith influences their politics.

"There haven't been any candidate forums yet to focus on the compassion issues, to highlight the moral compass of the candidates," says Jack Panell, a spokesperson for Sojourners, which is led by the liberal evangelical Christian and antipoverty advocate Jim Wallis. "We intend to ask these people how they will rely on their faith and other moral values to govern if they're elected president."

The participation of the three leading candidates signifies just how far the Democrats have come in their willingness to reach out to religious voters since the '04 election, when Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry lost nearly 80 percent of white evangelical voters to President Bush and became the first Democrat in decades to lose the Catholic vote. In the 2006 congressional elections, Democrats redoubled their faith outreach programs and made gains among religious voters that contributed to important Senate victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

But the prospect of presidential candidates discussing such a personal issue as their religious lives on national television could make for a delicate evening, particularly as secular voters are becoming one of the fastest-growing Democratic voter blocs.

"There will be questions that produce a certain amount of tension and a certain amount of discomfort, but that's what a good inquiry is," says the Rev. Joel Hunter, a Florida-based evangelical megachurch pastor who will be among the panelists questioning the candidates. "People want to know about [the candidates] and comparing their own values to the candidates', because when people vote for president it's a very personal decision."

Perhaps more than any of the front-runners, Obama has emphasized the role of faith in his political life, with a particular emphasis on his work in black churches as a community organizer in Chicago. The Obama campaign says Monday's event could give him a chance to expand the definition of "values" issues.

"They may ask about the moral component of progressive issues like the environment and the energy crisis," says Joshua DuBois, who oversees religious outreach for the Obama campaign. "It will be a chance for [Obama] to talk about how faith informs those issues in a way that I don't know he's been able to in a public forum before."

The Sojourners' Pentecost conference is expected to draw 700 attendees, sitting in on workshops like "how to put poverty on the agenda of your local church" and to participate in a Capitol Hill lobbying day to alleviate poverty. Sojourners says it is planning a similar forum for the top-tier Republican presidential candidates this fall.

By Dan Gilgoff