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Former First Lady Hillary Clinton said Monday on national television she is unsure she would have gotten through her highly public marital problems without depending on her faith.

As someone “tested in ways that are both publicly known and those that are not so well-known or not known at all,” Clinton said her faith, along with support of “my extended faith family–people whom I knew who were literally praying for me in prayer chains, who were prayer warriors for me, and people whom I didn’t know, [who] I would meet or get a letter from–sustained me through a very difficult time.”

“But I am very grateful that I had a grounding in faith that gave me the courage and the strength to do what I thought was right, regardless of what the world thought,” the New York senator said on a first-time live CNN broadcast of the three leading Democratic presidential candidates specifically focused on faith and values. “And that’s all one can expect or hope.”

Sponsored by Sojourners/Call to Renewal, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, the ONE Campaign, Oxfam America and Eastern University, Monday’s Presidential Forum on Faith, Values and Poverty at George Washington University in Washington was aimed at countering perceptions that GOP stands for God’s Only Party, while Democrats are hostile toward people of faith.

“I thought we were off to a good start tonight,” Jim Wallis of Sojourners/Call to Renewal said moments after the forum on CNN’s “Paula Zahn Now.”

“I mean, finally, a better conversation about faith and values,” Wallis said. “We’ve had a very narrow, restrictive conversation, as if there are only one or two religious issues. It’s been a bifurcated conversation. It’s been a narrow conversation.”

While Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards have made no secret they are Christians, Monday’s back-to-back-to-back 15-minute interview format elicited more thoughtful responses to spiritual foundations than allowed by the typical TV sound byte.

Clinton, for example, who was raised as a Methodist, confessed: “I come from a tradition that is perhaps a little too suspicious of people who wear their faith on their sleeves, so that a lot of the talk about and advertising about faith doesn’t come naturally to me.”

“It is something, you know, that I keep thinking of the Pharisees and all of the Sunday school lessons and readings that I had as a child,” Clinton said. “But I think your faith guides you every day. Certainly mine does. But at those moments in time when you’re tested, it is absolutely essential that you be grounded in your faith.”

Clinton told interviewer Soledad O’Brien that she was raised to be “a praying person,” starting as a little girl with saying prayers at night, grace at meals and praying at church and Methodist Youth Fellowship meetings as a teenager. While grateful for that grounding, she said, “If I had not been a praying person, shortly after coming to the White House, I would have become one in a big hurry.”

Clinton said sometimes her prayers are trivial, like asking God why she can’t lose weight, but other times they are in response to meeting someone she is just “struck by.” She described, while visiting a Methodist church in Iowa, being introduced to a man taken in by the church as a refugee from the Congo, where he was jailed for campaigning for democracy, beaten, and left hanging on a tree for dead, where members of his church rescued him.

“He told me this just as I was walking into the sanctuary,” she said. “I was just so overcome, and I spent much of the service thinking about and praying about these people in this church in the Congo, I don’t even know where in the Congo, who had saved this man and given him the chance to come and witness to somebody like me. So I pray for all kinds of things, some of it, to be honest, trivial and self-serving and all the rest of it, and when I do that I try to say ‘come on, you can do better than that.’ I say it to myself, because I assume there is the rolling of eyes going on. I certainly can do better than that.”

Asked by Wallis about a Christian program aimed at reducing poverty by half during the next 10 years and what he would do to mobilize the nation to accomplish such a goal, former Sen. John Edwards described 39 million Americans living in poverty not only as “the great moral issue facing this country today” but also “the cause of my life.”

“Everything that is in my power to do, I will do to drive the issue of poverty in this presidential campaign, so that everyone is required to talk about it, because I think it is the great moral issue of our time,” pledged Edwards, who was raised as a Southern Baptist.

Asked about African-Americans who felt disenfranchised and left behind following Hurricane Katrina, Edwards responded: “What has happened in New Orleans is a national embarrassment. All of us should be embarrassed by it. And it’s clear the problem will still exist to very large extent for the next president. It’s something to which I will commit to making a very large priority.”

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., a member of the United Church of Christ, said his faith informs both foreign policies like whether a war is just and about resolving conflict in the Middle East, and domestic policies like poverty.

“We have to get beyond what Dr. King called the either/or mentality and embrace the both/and mentality,” Obama said. “Our politics have exacerbated this notion of either/or.

“So we say, either people are entirely responsible for their own lot–and this tends to be expressed in Republican circles, thought not entirely–pick yourself up by your own bootstraps, act responsibly, act morally; great emphasis on private morality. Or conversely that individuals aren’t responsible: society is acting on them and they are not free agents.”

“My attitude, and I think the attitude of every religious leader and scholar that I value and listen to, is that we have these individual responsibilities and these societal responsibilities,” he said. “And those things aren’t mutually exclusive.”

In concrete terms, Obama said, that means things like lifting people out of poverty through programs like early childhood education. “We know that if we invest a dollar in early childhood education, we get seven dollars back and reduce dropout rates, improve reading scores, reduce delinquency, increase graduation rates,” he said. “The reason we don’t make those investments is not because they don’t work. It’s because we lack the political will. We don’t think those children are deserving of a good education. Although we won’t say that explicitly, our actions indicate it.”

“At the same time, if we’re going to improve our public education system, we’re going to have to instill in our children a sense of excellence and a sense of delayed gratification,” he said. “That’s where individual responsibility comes in, and religion speaks to that as well.”

Obama said he also believes society owes ex offenders coming out of the criminal-justice system a second chance. “There’s a biblical injunction, as I see it, to make sure that those young men and women have an opportunity to right their lives, and that will require a government investment in transitional jobs, because in some cases the private sector may not be willing initially to hire someone who’s got a felony record,” he said.

“We may need to provide them the kind of job-training support that they’re not currently getting,” he said. “The notion that we take away educational programs in the prisons to be tough on crime makes absolutely no sense.”

Clinton responded to a question about whether it is possible for liberals and conservatives to find common ground on reducing the number of abortions.

“It’s been a challenge,” she said, “because the pro-life and pro-choice communities have not really been willing to find much common ground, and I think that is great failing on all of our parts.”

Clinton said there are many young people tremendously influenced by a media and celebrity culture that have a difficult time sorting out the right decisions to make.

“I personally believe the adult society has failed those people,” she said. “I think that we have failed them in our churches, our schools and our government. And I certainly think the free market has failed. We have all failed.”

“We have left too many children to fend for themselves morally,” she said. “So I think there is a great opportunity, but it would require a leaving at the side the suspicions and the baggage that comes when people have very strong heartfelt feelings.”

Clinton said abortion is a difficult moral issue that “should not be diminished in any way as a moral issue, no matter which side you are on.”

“I have seen cases where I honestly believed that the moral choice was very complicated and not so straightforward as to what a young woman, her family, her physician, her pastor should do,” she said. “And what concerns me is that there’s been a real reluctance by anyone to make a move toward the other side for fear of being labeled as turning one’s back on the moral dimensions of the issue from either direction. So I would invite you, and I would be willing to work with you, to see if there could be some common ground that one could find.”

Clinton went on to say she believes there is opportunity to “chart a new course” on other important moral issues as well.

“Take health care,” she said. “I think we could get almost unanimous agreement that having more than 45 million uninsured people–9 million of whom are children–is a moral wrong in America. I think we could reach that agreement, and then we would have to start doing the hard work of deciding what we were going to do to make sure that they were not uninsured, because an uninsured person who goes to the hospital is more likely to die than an insured person. I mean that is a fact. So what do we do? We have to build a political consensus, and that requires people giving up a little bit of their own turf in order to create this common ground.”

“The same with energy,” Clinton continued. “You know we can’t keep talking about our dependence on foreign oil and the need to deal with global warming and the challenge it poses to our climate and to God’s creation, and just let business as usual go on. That means something has to be taken away from some people.”

Put on the spot to identify what he considers the greatest sin he has ever committed, Edwards said: “I’d have a hard time telling you one specific sin. I’m about to turn 54 years old this Sunday, and if I’ve had a day in my 54 years where I haven’t sinned multiple times, I would be amazed. I believe I have. I sin every single day. We are all sinners. We all fall short, which is why we have to ask for forgiveness from the Lord.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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