WASHINGTON – Three leading Democratic presidential contenders, who have been criticized by conservative Christians for their liberal stances, responded to questions on the controversial issues of evolution, same-sex "marriage" and abortion, during a faith-based forum on Monday.
CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien, joined by prominent religious leaders, questioned presidential hopefuls Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), former Sen. John Edwards and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) at the forum on "Faith Guiding Our Votes: Faith, Values and Poverty," hosted by the progressive Christian social justice ministry Sojourners.
One of the first questions asked was on evolution and whether Edwards, who grew up in a Southern Baptist Church, believed in it despite arguments by some that the Bible's creation narrative and evolution cannot co-exist. The question was asked amid revived creation-evolution debates spurred by the recently opened Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky.
Edward, in response, said he believes in evolution and does not think his Christian faith is challenged by scientific evidence of evolution
"I think a belief in God and a belief in Christ, in my case, is not in any way inconsistent with that," he said, "Because the hand of God was in every step of what's happened with man. The hand of God today is in every step of what happens with me and every human being that exists on this planet."
Edwards was further questioned on same-sex "marriage" to which he said he does not personally think homosexuals have the right to marry. However, he added that his own personal belief system is different than what he would support as president pointing out separation of church and state.
"First of all, my faith, my belief in Christ plays an enormous role in the way I view the world," claimed Edwards. "But I think I also understand the distinction between my job as president of the United States, my responsibility to be respectful of and to embrace all faith beliefs in this country because we have many faith beliefs in America."
The former senator also said the United States shouldn't be called a Christian nation.
When it was Obama's turn to speak, the Illinois senator spent nearly all his allotted 15 minutes on addressing the issue of poverty – the question posed by Sojourner's founder Jim Wallis. Obama discussed his ideas on how to lift people out of poverty such as through education by providing early childhood education that starts from age 0-3 and working with at-risk teenage parents. He also sees solution in providing ex-offenders coming out of prison a second chance by giving them government transitional jobs.
Obama, who has been criticized for his support of abortion and embryonic stem cell research, was not asked and did not address any controversial moral issue during the forum.
Clinton, on the other hand, was asked by the Rev. Joel C. Hunter of Florida megachurch Northland Church if she could envision pro-life and pro-choice individuals working together with the goal to eliminate abortion.
The New York senator and former first lady responded that she has been working for years to get abortion to be safe, legal and "rare."
"It's been a challenge, because the pro-life and the pro-choice communities have not really been willing to find much common ground. And I think that is a great failing on all or our parts," said Clinton, who, like Edwards and Obama, is pro-choice.
Religion has proven to play a prominent role in voters' candidate preference. All 17 democratic and republican presidential candidates describe themselves as Christians.
"To many Americans, religion is a very important part of their life and they are interested in how religiosity influences candidates," explained John Green, a University of Akron political science professor and senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, according to The Associated Press.
Experts note that this election is different because Democratic candidates are more open about their faith and are more actively seeking religious voters.
Clinton and Obama have hired strategist to focus on reaching religious voters, according to AP.
For Monday's forum, some 1,300 people packed the auditorium at George Washington University, where the forum was held.
A similar second presidential forum inviting top Republican candidates is currently being organized by Sojourners and is scheduled to take place in Iowa this September.