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Religion test

Politics | Candidates in both parties offer a glimpse into their fundamental beliefs

Issue: "Fixing Islam," June 16, 2007

The crackle and buzz coming through Rudolph Giuliani's microphone at a June 5 debate among Republican presidential candidates wasn't just a high-octane spitfire performance by the former New York City mayor.

Just as the GOP hopeful defended himself against charges from a Catholic bishop that his abortion views made him comparable to Pontius Pilate, Giuliani's microphone abruptly began breaking up and feeding back. When moderator and CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer quipped that the problem might be caused by lightning from above, other candidates playfully backed away from their lecterns. The former mayor quipped: "Look, for someone who went to parochial schools all his life, this is a very frightening thing that's happening right now."

For political junkies ready to engage with the 2008 campaign season, Republican and Democratic presidential debates set just two days apart provided viewers not only with a few moments of amusing political theater, but also a few interesting glimpses into the religious lives of the candidates.

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A June 5 debate in Manchester, N.H., provided Republican voters the last face-to-face engagement with candidates until an Aug. 5 debate in Iowa. Democrats, who also debated in Manchester, will convene for two more debates before August.

Before Giuliani struggled to answer the charges from a bishop, it was Democrats who were finding religion in a June 4 forum convened by left-wing evangelical Jim Wallis. Broadcast on CNN and presided over by the network's Soledad O'Brien and a host of religious leaders, the forum peppered three candidates-Sen. Hillary Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama, and 2004 vice presidential candidate John Edwards-with questions probing their religious values.

Some questions proved uncomfortable. O'Brien asked Edwards to sit before asking him, "What is the biggest sin you've ever committed?" Edwards made a few jokes then replied, "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," he said. "To try to identify one particular sin that was worse or more extreme than the others, the list is too long."

Obama too made scriptural references. Answering a question about the nation's religious duty to the poor, Obama said, "I am my brother's keeper," before launching into a discourse on poverty fighting rooted in secularism that took up much of his 15-minute time limit.

And if Edwards seemed to embrace the religious questioning and if Obama sought to avoid it, Clinton was uneasy in her attempt to engage it. When asked if her faith helped her through her rocky marriage to former president Bill Clinton, Clinton told O'Brien, "Well, I'm not sure I would have gotten through it without my faith." From there, Clinton volunteered that she doesn't really feel comfortable speaking out about her religious beliefs, noting that she's "a little too suspicious of people who wear their faith on their sleeves," she said. "It is something that-you know, I keep thinking of the Pharisees and all of the Sunday school lessons and readings that I had as a child."

Religion-and especially abortion-was a strong topic in the Republican debate too. Giuliani, a Catholic, sought to explain how he resolved his personal opposition to abortion with his political ties to pro-abortion issues. Mitt Romney, who was seen as pro-abortion during his time as Massachusetts governor, appeared to take a stronger pro-life stance.

Romney also disputed notions that he was trying to downplay his Mormon beliefs in order to appeal to conservative evangelicals. "I also believe that there are some pundits out there that are hoping that I'll distance myself from my church so that'll help me politically," Romney said. "That's not going to happen."

But the award for most direct response went to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Asked to clarify his views on evolution, he said, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth. . . . A person either believes that God created the process or believes that it was an accident and that it just happened all on its own."

Huckabee said that if Americans "want a president who doesn't believe in God, there's probably plenty of choices. But if I'm selected as president of this country, they'll have one who believes in those words that God did create."

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