A faith-based forum at Messiah College Sunday put Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on the spot about the role of faith in their politics.

The nationally televised Compassion Forum, co-hosted by CNN Election Center anchor Campbell Brown and Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, was divided into separate 45-minute discussions with each candidate, and touched on topics from abortion to AIDS and poverty.

But the first question for both candidates Sunday centered on remarks Obama made at a fundraiser in San Francisco on April 6, about his difficulty garnering support from some working class voters frustrated by the economy.

Obama was quoted as saying: "It's not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Clinton said Sunday that Obama's comments seemed to be an "elitist" characterization of people that needs to be overcome.

"Someone goes to a closed-door fundraiser in San Francisco and makes comments that do seem elitist, out of touch and, frankly, patronizing," Clinton said.

Obama said his comments may have been "clumsy" but that he "was in no way demeaning a faith" that he, himself embraces.


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"What I was saying is that when economic hardship hits in these communities, what people have is they've got family, they've got their faith, they've got their traditions that have been passed on to them from generation to generation," he said."Those aren't bad things. That's what they have left.

"And unfortunately, what people have become bitter about, and often times have told me about, as I traveled through not just Pennsylvania, but I was referring to states all across the Midwest, including my home state (Illinois), is any confidence that the government is listening to them."

With just over a week to go before the Pennsylvania primary on Tuesday, April 22, the visit to Messiah College Sunday was the closest that either candidate has come to visiting York County. The Christian college sits just over the York County line in Grantham, Cumberland County.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain declined an invitation to the forum.

Some of the most insightful questions posed at the forum were those not typically fielded on the campaign trail.

After Clinton answered questions about genocide in Darfur and aid for people suffering from HIV/AIDS, Meacham asked the New York senator why she thinks that a "loving God allows innocent people to suffer." The magnitude of the question drew laughs from the crowd and a smile from Clinton.

"You know, that is the subject of generations of commentary and debate," Clinton said. "And I don't know. I can't wait to ask him. Because I have pondered it endlessly. But I do want to add that what that means to me is that in the face of suffering, there is no doubt in my mind that God calls us to respond."

Brown asked Obama if religion has too much influence in public life.

Obama said he believes that people of religious faith should have the same right to voice their beliefs in the "public square" as atheists and "nonbelievers."

"And the biggest danger, I think, for those of us of religious faith when we're in the public sphere is a certain self-righteousness, where we start thinking that, 'Well, you know, I've got a direct line to God.' You know that is incompatible with democracy. You may have a direct line to God, but you know, that is not, the public square is not the place for us to empower ourselves in that way."

Clinton and Obama each re-affirmed their stance in favor of abortion rights. Clinton said she believes the potential for life begins at conception and that abortion should remain legal, but should also be "safe and rare."

Obama said he doesn't "presume to know" when life begins. He said he believes one way to move closer to a common ground in the abortion debate is to work toward reducing the number of abortions by teaching abstinence, reducing teen pregnancies and "teaching the sacredness of sexuality to our children."

After the forum, Messiah College freshman Andrew Knight, 18, of Hanover said he believed both candidates made honest attempts to speak about their religious views at the forum, but he thought both candidates "kind of beat around the bush" on abortion.

Knight said he is currently supporting McCain for president.

Gillian Smith, an 18-year-old freshman from Dillsburg said she is supporting Obama and that many of Clinton's answers at the forum sounded "rehearsed" for the audience at Messiah College.

Freshman Shaina Gleisner, 18, of Hanover said she felt Clinton's answers seemed less rehearsed than Obama's. But Gleisner said she found the candidates' comments about faith and their politics as insightful.

"They both really did a good job," Gleisner said.