Eight Democratic presidential candidates mostly skipped the issue of faith in their party’s first national televised debate, a remarkable shift after the manic activity of national Democrats following recent elections to prove that they, too, were people of faith.

National Democrats and progressive Christians launched a number of initiatives to address the Democratic Party’s “serious God problem,” as a Pew Research Center study kindly reported.

Conducted in July 2006, the Pew survey found that only 26 percent of respondents identified the Democratic Party as “friendly” to religion, down three points from 2005 and compared to 42 percent in 2003.

Yet the eight Democrats barely mentioned faith matters during a 90-minute program Thursday night at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, S.C.

One exception was when the moderator, Brian Williams, anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” asked John Edwards, “Who do you consider to be your moral leader?”

After a pause too long for television, nearly 10 seconds, Edwards haltingly began: “I don’t think I could identify one person that I consider to be my moral leader. My Lord is important to me. I go to him in prayer every day and ask for both forgiveness and counsel.”

That question and reply echoed a similar question put to George W. Bush in 2000 Republican debates.

Bush was asked, “What political philosopher or thinker do you identify with and why?” He replied, “Christ, because he changed my heart.”

Earlier during the debate, Edwards recalled a vivid memory when he was 10 years old of going to a restaurant after church and having to leave because his father could not pay the menu prices.

Obama also made a glancing reference to faith. In an answer about abortion, he said, “I trust women to make these decisions in conjunction with their doctors, and their families, and their clergy.”

Other than those two brief comments, direct references to faith were missing.

The eight candidates’ religious affiliation has a limited range. Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Dennis Kucinich and Bill Richardson are identified as Roman Catholics. Hillary Clinton and John Edwards are Methodists. Barack Obama belongs to the United Church of Christ. Mike Gravel is a Unitarian.

Their Republican counterparts claim Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, Catholic and Mormon affiliations.

Only Obama and Clinton underscore their faith affiliation in the biographical sketches on their Web sites. Obama mentions working as a community organizer for a church-based group and that he attends Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ. Clinton references her church’s youth group, which one evening went to hear Martin Luther King Jr.

Iraq was a primary topic of discussion. Candidates made excuses for votes, offered broad sweeping plans to solving the crisis and tactical suggestions for passing legislation.

Abortion, guns and mental illness, healthcare, the confederate flag, Terri Schiavo, amnesty for illegal aliens, education, drug tests for welfare recipients, oil company profits, climate change, first accomplishment on first day in Oval office, Israeli and Palestinian conflict, Darfur, the global war on terror and civil unions for gay people also received attention.

Even in addressing these issues little, if any, moral reflection was heard.

Politicians shouldn’t play preachers. Nevertheless, the American public expects their presidents to have a faith-friendly disposition and to use moral language.

These eight Democrats are off to a less-than-impressive start to convincing Americans that their faith matters in politics.

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

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