Moderators of Sunday's faith forum spared the Democratic presidential candidates no mercy as they drilled them on difficult theological questions ranging from "Why does God allow people to suffer?" to "Do you believe that God created the world in six days?"
Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) took questions from moderators Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek and respected scholar on faith and American politics; Campbell Brown, CNN Election Center anchor; and some of the nation's most prominent Christian and religious leaders during the Compassion Forum held at Messiah College near Harrisburg, Pa.
At first, Clinton seemed taken aback by the unexpected question of why a loving God would allow good people to suffer, before remarking that the question is the "subject of generations of commentary and debate."
She then quipped, "I don't know. I can't wait to ask Him," drawing applause from the crowd.
But the candidate vying to be the first female U.S. president added that even though she does not know why God allows suffering, there is "no doubt" in her mind that man must respond.
"For whatever reason it exists, it's a call to action," Clinton said.
The former first lady was given another tough question that got her laughing when moderator Jon Meacham asked if she believed God wants her to be president.
"I don't presume anything about God," she answered after a good laugh. She then went on to say that she tries to put her faith into action everyday to help others.
Florida megachurch pastor Dr. Joel C. Hunter of Northland, A Church Distributed asked Clinton about what or who she depends on to do what is morally right, such as in the case of Darfur.
She said her decision-making process is rooted in her prayer, contemplation, study, and advice from others, which is needed because she does not know the answers to many of the questions.
"I am deeply aware that there are predictable and unpredictable consequences," Clinton said, noting that part of making decisions is living with the consequences.
The New York senator was also questioned about life issues such as if she believes life begins at conception. She said she believes the "potential" for life begins at conception, and noted that her denomination the United Methodist Church has struggled with this issue. But she contends that it's not only about potential life, but the other lives involved and the government does not have the authority to make the decision on whether a mother should keep her child. Clinton stated, as in other prior public speeches, her position that abortion should be legal but safe and rare.
After Clinton's questioning, her political rival, Barack Obama, took the stage to answer his own set of hard questions.
Obama's first question was about his controversial remark last week that decades of lost jobs and unfulfilled promises from Washington have left some Pennsylvanians "bitter." He said they were "clinging to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as way to explain their frustrations," according to CNN.
At Sunday's forum, he sought to clarify his comment saying that "religion is a bulwark, a foundation when other things aren't going well." He also reaffirmed his faith saying, "I am a devout Christian" and said he wasn't "demeaning" a faith he embraced.
"Nobody in a presidential campaign on the Democratic side in recent memory has done more to reach out to the church and talk about, what are our obligations religiously, in terms of doing good works, and how does that inform our politics?" Obama defended himself.
After a few tough political questions, Obama faced some tough theological questions, including if he believes God intervenes in history and rewards and punishes nations.
Obama responded that he believes that God does intervenes, but the concept is "too mysterious" for him to grasp. He said all he can do is try his best to be an instrument to do God's will and apply what he believes is the core value – to be his brothers' and sisters' keeper – then he is moving God's agenda forward, even though he doesn't know what the "master plan" is.
On the abortion issue, Obama believes "absolutely" that pro-choice and pro-life supporters can find common ground. He said pro-choice people must acknowledge there is a moral ground in the debate and that it is a heart-wrenching choice. Secondly, both sides must admit there can be people of "goodwill" that exist on both sides of the issue on abortion.
"If we can acknowledge that much we can agree we can do everything to avoid someone facing that choice," he said. But he stated that ultimately he believes it is the woman's choice in consultation with her doctor and family to make the decision if she should keep a child.
The Illinois senator supports a comprehensive approach to the abortion problem that includes abstinence education, medical care improvement, contraception, and adoption.
Obama also answered a question about the creation story in the Book of Genesis. He said he understands there is a debate about whether the universe was created in six days literally or not. The man running to be the first black U.S. president said he does not believe that the universe was created in 24 hour day periods although he believes the Bible's creation story is "fundamentally" true. He also added that he believes in evolution and that it is not incompatible with the Christian faith. Rather, as he knows more about science it strengthens his faith.
Toward the end, Obama, who has been accused of being a secret-Muslim, was asked about his exposure to Islam as a child growing up in Indonesia – the world's most populous Muslim country.
He said that he first attended a Catholic school in Indonesia before going to a public school. His experience in Indonesia exposed him to tolerant Muslims living under a secular constitution where some Muslim women do not even wear the traditional head covering. As a result of his experience, he says most Muslims are goodwilled, trying to raise their kids the best they can.
Commentators after the faith forum noted how far the Democrats have gone in addressing religion and politics, which had formerly been monopolized by the Republican Party. They also observed that evangelicals have changed and are broadening their issues beyond abortion and traditional marriage to include Darfur, torture, HIV/AIDS, climate change, and poverty.
The presidential candidates forum on faith took place nine days before the Pennsylvania primary. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the presumptive Republican nominee, was invited to participate but declined.