WASHINGTON—Leading Democratic presidential contenders spoke Monday of the tests posed by infidelity, death and social injustice to show that Republicans don't have a lock on the Lord.
At a panel on faith and politics, Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina discussed the religious aspects of social justice issues, such as poverty.
"My starting point is to restore that sense that we're all in this together ... and faith informs that," Obama said. "How do we make sure we live that faith and not just talk about it?"
Obama, a member of the United Church of Christ, said his faith gave him "a set of responsibilities toward others, not just toward myself," and he spent most of his allotted time discussing the religious imperative of just social policies.
The two others spoke more openly about their personal faith lives.
Clinton, a Methodist, focused on the test posed by husband Bill Clinton's infidelity, saying, "I'm not sure I would have gotten though it without my faith."
Conceding that "a lot of talk and advertising about faith doesn't come naturally to me," Clinton said that "at the moments in time that you're tested, it's absolutely essential that you be grounded in your faith."
During that period, Clinton said, prayer gave her "the strength to do what I thought was right, not what the world thought."
Edwards, also a Methodist, talked about the "faith journey" spurred by the 1996 death of his teenaged son and developed further by wife Elizabeth's cancer.
"Prayer played a huge role in my survival. ... It was the Lord that got me through that," Edwards said.
Asked about the biggest sin he'd ever committed, Edwards passed: "I sin every single day. We all fall short, which is why we have to ask for forgiveness from the Lord."
The event, held at George Washington University, was sponsored by Sojourners/Call to Renewal, a Christian group focused on social justice issues. A similar event for Republican presidential candidates is set for September.
That the three Democrats spoke so comfortably about faith shows how far the party has come since 2004, when presidential candidate Howard Dean said his favorite New Testament book was Job (an Old Testament text) and John Kerry's discussion of his Roman Catholicism was dogged by controversy over whether, as a supporter of abortion rights, he could receive communion in Catholic churches.
Times have changed, and Democrats are speaking the language of faith in the hope that issues such as poverty, trade, immigration and global climate change could provide an opening for them to woo moderate and liberal people of faith who are less motivated by such issues as abortion and gay marriage.
At the same time, religious moderates and liberals are trying to wrest the mantle of public faith from their socially conservative counterparts and turn the focus away from the issues that religious conservatives highlight.
Religious conservatives have long dominated public discourse at the intersection of faith and politics because of the close ties between many of their leaders and an ascendant Republican party.
"Even among evangelicals, progressive issues are rising in importance," the Rev. Brian McLaren, whom Time Magazine labeled one of the nation's most influential evangelicals, said last week. "A new spirit is in the air. I think we've got to get used to the fact that there is a far broader range of voices than we're paying attention to."