Clinton, Obama, and the forum on faith

In the wake of the "bitter" controversy, Democratic candidates pressed on faith and compassion at a Pennsylvania forum.

By Steve Benen

Published April 14, 2008 12:55PM (EDT)

When Faith in Public Life first scheduled a forum weeks ago for the presidential candidates, it sounded like it was going to be a pretty compelling event. While not a debate, the event would press the candidates specifically on issues relating to compassion, morality, and culture in a way that most forums usually don't. When Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama agreed to participate, it was reasonable to expect quite a bit of interest.

But Faith in Public Life also got a little lucky with timing -- just 48 hours before their event, a media firestorm focused on an Obama comment about people in financially distressed communities "clinging" to their faith. All of a sudden, a high-profile event became a very high-profile event.

It's always hard to know whether a forum like this one, hosted at Messiah College in Pennsylvania and aired nationally on CNN, is going to shift a lot of votes, but we gained some interesting insights from the candidates, and got a closer look at the flap that has dominated the political world since late Friday afternoon. (John McCain was invited, but chose not to participate.)

In response to the first question at the forum, Mrs. Clinton repeated her charge that Mr. Obama's remarks were "elitist, out of touch and, frankly, patronizing." She said his words helped perpetuate the idea that Democrats looked down their noses at church-going Americans and hunters, an attitude that many Democrats believe contributed to their last two presidential losses.

Mr. Obama, when he got his chance on the stage, once again sought to clarify and defend his comments, which he made in the closed-door fund-raiser in San Francisco a week ago. He said his words had been distorted and misconstrued.

"That was in no way a demeaning of a faith that I myself embrace," Mr. Obama said. "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."

Of course, it wasn't all about the so-called "bitter-gate" story; the candidates were also pressed on the specifics on everything from abortion to evolution to poverty.

At the risk of getting overly meta, I think the event's existence and the Dems' role in it is, in and of itself, a step in the right direction. Clinton emphasized last night, for example, that she believes Al Gore and John Kerry came up short in their campaigns because of the perception that they couldn't respect or relate to Americans' religiosity.

I tend to think that's overstated, but the perception of a "God gap" is a persistent challenge for the party, and forums like this one night help chip away at the problem.

So, did everyone watch? Thoughts?

Steve Benen

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