CBNNews.com - HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania - Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama talked faith and politics at an event called The Compassion Forum last night at Messiah College in Pennsylvania.
The event was also a chance for both candidates to address a new controversy over words Obama used to describe small town America.
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Each candidate came out on stage alone. First Clinton, Obama. John McCain was a no-show.
McCain declined the invitation. His campaign plans to start its own "compassion tour" next week.
The forum's focus: How faith, the Bible and public policy intersect when it comes to important issues such as poverty, aids, climate change, human rights and yes, even abortion.
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But first, Obama and Clinton addressed the latest swirling controversy.
Obama has taken some heat for these recent comments at a San Francisco fundraiser.
"You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. It's not surprising then they get bitter. They cling to guns, or religion," Obama said.
Clinton pounced, calling the remarks demeaning. Sunday's forum gave her a stage to fuel the fire.
"Someone goes to a closed-door fund-raiser in San Francisco and makes comments that do seem elitist, out of touch and, frankly, patronizing," she said.
Obama was on the defensive.
"My words may have been clumsy, but this is something that I've talked about before. I've talked about in my own life, which is that religion is a bulwark, a foundation when other things aren't going well," Obama said.
While the controversy may have made the headlines, it was the personal questions that made this event different.
Clinton talked about feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit.
"Ever since I was a little child I have felt the enveloping love of God. I felt that the Holy Spirit was with me," she said.
She talked about how Esther is her favorite Bible story and was asked one of life's most puzzling questions: Why a loving God allows innocent people to suffer?
"Well," Clinton paused, drawing laughter from the audience. "I don't know. I can't wait to ask Him."
The pro-choice Clinton was asked whether she believed life starts at conception.
"I believe that the potential for life begins at conception," she responded.
Obama had to handle some direct questions himself like was the earth created in a literal six days.
"I believe that God created the universe and that the six days in the Bible may not be six days as we understand it. It may not be 24-hour days," he said.
Then there was this one:
Mediator: Do you believe that God intervenes in history and rewards or punishes people or nations in real time for their behavior?
Obama: You know, what I believe is that God intervenes, but that his plans are a little too mysterious for me to grasp.
On abortion, Obama tried to make peace with pro-lifers.
"It requires us to acknowledge that there is a moral dimension to abortion, which I think that all too often those of us who are pro-choice have not talked about or tried to tamp down," he said.
A compassion forum would have been virtually unheard of in 2004. There was very little religious outreach going on compared to 2008. But times have changed and the Democrats know it.