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Candidate Clinton goes public with her private faith

She doesn't cede religious turf to conservatives but dismays some liberals.

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To most outsiders, these groups would seem harmless, and at times beneficial to their members. For Clinton, the women's prayer group became an invaluable support network, especially during the Lewinsky scandal. Holly Leachman, the head of the women's group whom Clinton calls "a spiritual spark plug," faxed her a daily Scripture reading or faith message through Clinton's years as first lady. The women in the group also presented Clinton with a handmade book filled with messages, quotes, and Scripture – one of Clinton's favorite gifts of all the thousands she received as first lady, she says, and one she used often.

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In the Senate, Clinton's involvement in the weekly prayer group has allowed her to form across-the-aisle bonds that have insulated her at times from Washington's ultra-partisan atmosphere.

But to those who believe that the intersection of faith and politics has already gone far over the line – especially with the religious left now engaging on turf that used to be dominated by the religious right – Clinton's own words can be a source of alarm. At the Sojourners faith forum last June, she referred to how she and the other two Democratic presidential candidates invited to speak – Obama and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina – are trying "to inject faith into policy." In an address to the United Methodist General Conference in 1996, Clinton laid out how her faith informs her politics.

"For me, the Social Principles of the Methodist Church have been as much a description of our history as a prod to my future actions," she said. "We can find direction, if we look to the church's call to strengthen families and renew our schools and encourage policies that enable each child to have a chance to fulfill his or her God-given potential."

Death penalty stand

The only area where Clinton runs afoul of Methodist doctrine is over the death penalty, which the church opposes. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Clinton is a longtime advocate of the death penalty. She cosponsored legislation in 2003 to establish a process for DNA testing for people sentenced to the death penalty under federal law. As first lady, she lobbied for her husband's crime bill, which added to the list of offenses eligible for the federal death penalty. Clinton was unavailable for questions on this and other faith-related matters.

It is no doubt a sign of the times that the top Democratic presidential candidates, especially Clinton and Obama, have a significant faith component to their campaign. Those on the secular left who would rather skip the God talk are left with the longer-shot candidates. But by following her approach to faith and politics, Clinton probably stands to gain more in the center than she would lose on the left, analysts say.

"There's a particular way in which Americans want their presidents as head of state to kind of show some religious leg," says Mark Silk, head of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

The challenge for Clinton, when she does engage in faith talk, is to do so in a way that appeals to voters. Mr. Silk suggests that her "Sunday School teacher" tone may not be as effective as her husband's or Obama's more preacherly style.

If Clinton's enthusiastic reception at Saddleback Church on Nov. 29 is any indication, she may be getting the knack of reaching out, through her faith, to audiences that normally would not have given her the time of day. But that, too, may be a sign of how the religious right is changing, as new leaders like Mr. Warren open up their pulpits to politicians with whom they can agree to disagree on some issues, while exploring common ground on others.