Faith in what?

There's a lot of talk in the wake of Monday night's Sojourners/Call to Renewal Forum on whether the subject of faith has become too interwoven in American politics and public life. That is an excellent question, but one I'm not going to address here because there are more relevant topics to discuss, such as the media coverage of the CNN-broadcast event. Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards -- especially Clinton -- are getting a lot of attention for what they said and the way they came across to the crowd gathered in Washington's Foggy Bottom neighborhood. (For a complete and very helpful transcript go here).

Clinton's memorable quote "I'm not sure I would have gotten through it without my faith," in reference to her husband's very public marital infidelity, has certainly been the headliner, but as former Bush administration official David Kuo, notes there was a sprinkling of evangelical "code words" that Republicans have used in the past. Here's a sampling as cited by The New York Times:

She admitted that talking about her faith in public "doesn't come naturally to me," saying she often flashed back to "the Pharisees and all of the Sunday school lessons and readings I had as a child."

She expressed gratitude for close friends and others who she said were praying for her, describing them as "prayer warriors" who "sustained me through a very difficult time."

"I am very grateful 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," she said, drawing a rousing round of appreciative applause.

Were these words used intentionally as "code words" at this event? It would be difficult for the journalist covering this event to say for sure, since there is no hard and fast definition for religious code words. But it's certainly worth looking into.

Overall, nearly everyone agrees that this was a rather significant event. The Washington Post described the event as "an unprecedented forum" in the lede to its A3 story. But was the event significant in politics in general (are we talking about some serious breach of the wall between church and state?) or more for just the Democratic Party?

More from the Times:

The event was the first in recent memory by Democrats that focused explicitly on faith and its values. It highlights how far the party has come since the 2004 presidential election in its efforts to appeal to religious voters and the openings Democrats see if the Republicans nominate a candidate who supports abortion rights and gay rights like Rudolph W. Giuliani or one who would be the first Mormon president, Mitt Romney.

Mara Vanderslice, director of religious outreach for the Kerry-Edwards campaign in 2004, said it would have been almost unimaginable for Democratic candidates to have participated in such an event in 2004.

Ms. Vanderslice recalled how difficult it was to nudge Mr. Kerry to talk about his Roman Catholic faith in a substantive way during the campaign.

"We would never have seen something like this last cycle," she said.

According to unnamed Democratic strategists interviewed by the Post, Democrats are working hard to win back some portion of the religious vote. The say that the "goal is less about appealing to conservative white evangelicals -- who according to exit polls cast almost 80 percent of their votes for Bush in 2004 -- and more about capturing moderate Catholics and mainline Protestants." But are talk and code words all that is necessary to win over that vote, however you want to define it?

The Atlantic's political analyst, Marc Ambinder, argues that the religious left is not defined by anything and that even the theme for the night -- poverty -- was hardly mentioned:

What is the religious left, really? Is it a movement? Is it a demographic cleavage that has no political significance? Is it organized? Does it have a core? What are its priorities? How does it reconcile church with state? Does it have aspirations to attain client status along with other Democratic interest groups?

That Sojourners founder Rev. Jim Wallis is influential is not in dispute. The forum was proof enough of that. That the Democratic candidates are attentive to religion and values is evident from how often the frontrunners talk about it. But there was no real clarity to last night's forum. Wallis told the audience that he wanted the forum to focus on poverty -- its motto was "Vote Out Poverty," he said -- but only two of the roughly 20 questions touched on the issue.

The narrative for this story going into next year's elections has two paths. One involves members of the pew vote moving away from the current administration's policies for various reasons, whether it be the war in Iraq or immigration policy or economic policy. The second storyline, which will be harder to track due to the heavy emphasis on the first but potentially more long-lasting and significant, is whether there is a genuine formation of a voting bloc known as the religious left.

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