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While Democratic presidential candidate Barak Obama has taken a lot of heat for his church connections — and has been praised for his insightful response — fellow contender Hillary Clinton said little about it at first.

In an interview published March 25, Clinton did assert that she would have left the church if her pastor had been inclined to speak with the same hard-edged rhetoric as Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. “He would not have been my pastor,” she told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “You don’t choose your family, but you choose what church you want to attend.”

Clinton may be about to get a dose of her own religion-related criticism, however. While I’ve heard no one suggest concern about her affiliation with the United Methodist church, the blogosphere is buzzing over reports that Clinton has been closely involved, over a long period of time, with a little-known Capitol Hill prayer group called “The Fellowship,” which some apparently know as “The Family.”

I haven’t seen the group accused of anything sinister — the big surprise is that it consists mainly of strongly conservative Republicans. According to the reports, Clinton first joined a prayer group of senator’s wives in 1993 (small “prayer cells” are apparently segregated by gender). That group seems to have been a strong support to her after her husband’s much-publicized infidelity was publicized. After her election to the U.S. Senate, we are told, she began to participate in the Senate Prayer Breakfast, a related but more exclusive group.

Various pundits will no doubt suggest that Clinton’s involvement with the group has been motivated more by politics than prayer, and others will express concern that she has been unduly influenced by a particularly fundamentalist brand of Christianity. Some apparently prefer to cast not-so-subtle rhetorical aspersions by emphasizing the group’s “secretive” nature and highlighting the terms like “The Family,” as if it were a spiritual mafioso, and “cell,” as if to compare “prayer cells” to terrorist cells.

I can’t speak for Clinton’s motives, nor do I have any basis for judging in what ways she might have been influenced by praying regularly with political opponents who may or may not have mixed motives of their own.

It’s all too easy to be cynical in an election year. If bloggers and others consider it to be news that for 15 years Clinton has been sharing her heart and praying with people who have different political views but a similar faith in Christ, then I count it as good news, and worthy of respect.

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