NBC's Russert: Obama first of Dem candidates to discuss faith "in some time"


On the February 11 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press, host and NBC News Washington bureau chief Tim Russert suggested that Democratic presidential candidates have not publicly talked about their religious faith in a long time. Discussing Sen. Barack Obama's (D-IL) presidential announcement speech, Russert said to Washington Post columnist David Broder, "My ear heard something that I had not heard from Democratic candidates in some time. Up front, Senator Obama began his speech with references to his faith, and then came back to that same issue in the speech. ... What's that about?" But, contrary to Russert's suggestion, many Democratic presidential candidates have referred to or discussed their faith publicly, including former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC), who talked about his Southern Baptist upbringing* on Meet the Press just the week before. For example:

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (NY)

  • From the biography posted on her presidential campaign website:
    Faith was central to her family. Her mother taught Sunday school, and Hillary was a regular in her church youth group. She was deeply influenced by her youth minister who taught her about "faith in action." There were trips to the inner city, babysitting for the children of migrant farm workers, and an extraordinary night when Hillary was fourteen and her youth group went to hear a speech by Martin Luther King Jr.
  • From the June 29, 2006, edition of CNN's The Morning Grind:
    Appearing before a religious conference earlier this week, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-New York) told the audience that as a child attending Sunday school she would baby-sit the children of migrant workers so that their older siblings could join their parents at work.

    "I was fortunate that at an early age, through my church, I was given the opportunity to expand my horizons," Clinton told the 600 adults and teenagers attending the Sojourners "Covenant for a New America" conference.

    Politically, the story served two purposes for the New York Democrat. It allowed her to promote a developing Democratic message tailored to the faith community that ties the party's "compassionate" legislative agenda directly to moral values. And, personally, it allowed Clinton to speak about her own spiritually [sic]. The latter is not new for the former first lady, but it is a theme we could hear more and more if she decides to run for president.

  • From the October 9, 2000, debate between Clinton and then-Rep. Rick Lazio, her opponent in the 2000 New York Senate race:
    MARCIA KRAMER (moderator): OK, Mrs. Clinton, we asked our viewers to come up with some questions for this debate, and we were surprised at what they wanted to know about you. They want to know more about you as a person. Quite frankly, Mrs. Clinton, they wanted to know why, after all the revelations and pain of the last few years, and because you are such a role model, why you stayed with your husband.

    CLINTON: Well, you know, Marcia, I've answered that question and I've addressed it in various forums. For my entire life, I have worked to make sure women had the choices they could make in their own lives that were right for them. I've made my choices. I'm here with my daughter, of whom I'm very proud; we have a family that means a lot to us. And I'm going to continue to stand up and speak out for what I believe, what I think is important. And many of my experiences in my life will give me insights into what I can do to be a good senator.

    You know, I've had first-hand experience in balancing family and work. I've had to worry about making sure that my parents -- my late father and my mother -- were well taken care of as well as taking care of my daughter. The choices that I've made in my life are right for me. I can't talk about anybody else's choice, I can only say that mine are rooted in my religious faith, in my strong sense of family, and in what I believe is right and important.

    I want to go to the Senate to stand up for women's choices and women's rights as I have done around the world in every chance that I've been given. And I want to be sure that there's a voice in the Senate that reminds us that with all the advances that women have, we're still threatened with the right to choose that might disappear if the wrong person is elected president, the wrong people are elected to the Senate. So I think my experience as a woman, as a person, will make me the kind of senator who will really understand what's at stake.

  • From the May 23, 1993, New York Times Magazine article, "Mrs. Wonk Goes to Washington":
    [Clinton's] thinking stems from a set of deeply held religious beliefs -- another thing that many liberals in the past two decades, imbued with an overwhelming secularism, have shied away from. Clinton credits her Methodist faith with helping mold her social conscience, opening her eyes to the problems of others. Mostly, she keeps her faith a private matter. But occasionally it comes into the open.

    In spare moments, for example, she sometimes glances at a little book filled with uplifting scriptural passages that she carries in her purse. And on the Sunday morning before the New Hampshire primary last year, in the lobby of the small, slightly seedy hotel that was the Clinton headquarters, a couple of journalists stopped to chat with her before she got into a campaign van. A reporter asked about a curious golden pin that adorned her suit.

    "Angel's wings," Clinton said, explaining that she brings them out on days when she feels a particular need for help.

    "Faith is a wonderful gift of grace," she says. "It gives you a sense of being rooted in meaning and love that goes far beyond your own life. It gives you a base of assurance as to what is really important and stands the test of time day after day, minute after minute, so that many of the pressures that come to bear from the outside world are not seen as that significant."


  • From the February 4 edition of Meet the Press:
    RUSSERT: Gay marriage.

    EDWARDS: I can't imagine why you asked about New Hampshire.

    RUSSERT: It's next up after Nevada.

    Gay marriage. You said this: "It's a hard issue and you're 53 years old. You grew up in a small town in the rural south. Raised in the Southern Baptist church -- a belief system that arises from that. It's part of who I am. I can't make it disappear. ... I personally feel great conflict about it. I don't know the answer. I wish I did. I think from my perspective, it's easy for me to say, gay civil unions, yes, partnership benefits, yes, but it's something that I struggle with. Do I believe they should have the right to marry? I'm not there yet."

    Why not?

    EDWARDS: I think it's from my own personal culture and faith belief. And I think, if you had gone on in that same quote, that I have -- I struggle myself with imposing my faiths -- my faith belief. I grew up in the Southern Baptist church. I was baptized in the Southern Baptist church. My dad was a deacon. In fact, I was there just a couple weeks ago to see my father get an award -- it's just part of who I am.

    And the question is whether I, as president of the United States, should impose on the United States of America my views on gay marriage because I know where it comes from. I'm aware of why I believe what I believe. And I think there is consensus around this idea of no discrimination, partnership benefits, civil unions. I think that certainly a president who's willing to lead could lead the country in the right direction on that.

    RUSSERT: Do you believe you're born gay?

    EDWARDS: I think that I -- first of all, sexual orientation -- I'm not an expert on sexual orientation. I think that there's a real possibility that people are born gay, yes.

    RUSSERT: You don't believe -- do you believe homosexuality's a sin?

    EDWARDS: No.

    RUSSERT: Do you believe that openly gay men and women should be able to serve in the military.

    EDWARDS: Yes.

    RUSSERT: And you would do that as president?

    EDWARDS: Absolutely.

  • From the June 15, 2005, edition of The Washington Post:
    Edwards took a two-year faculty position at the University of North Carolina, where he will lead the new nonpartisan Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. In his speeches, he uses the vocabulary of morality and social responsibility to talk about the nation's persistent inability to narrow the gaps in income and opportunity.

    In the process, he aims to signal that Republicans, and particularly the Christian right, do not have a monopoly on issues of faith or personal conviction.

    "We believe in giving voice to those who have no voice. That's what the Democratic Party is supposed to be all about," Edwards told several hundred Democrats and labor activists in Chicago on Monday at a convention of Jesse L. Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.

    To an Iowa housing and homelessness group, he asked, "What does it say when we do nothing -- nothing but turn our backs -- for 45 [million] to 46 million people who have no health care coverage? These are not the signals ... of what our collective moral values are."

    Mindful that Bush won votes from people who believed they knew where he stood, and that Kerry was portrayed as an uncertain steward, Edwards said in the interview that national Democratic leaders must prove they have "a core set of beliefs" that they are "willing to fight for, whether they're popular or not."

    Born and raised a Southern Baptist who drifted away from church and then returned to it, Edwards said faith is fine in political discourse if it is authentic: "It is not a good idea to treat faith as a strategy. Invoking the name of God 50 times in a political speech is a mistake."

    But that does not mean leaving God out of political speeches. "You know, the Lord gave us minds to think," Edwards said in Chicago, "but He also gave us hearts to inspire us."

  • From the April 14, 2005, edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes:
    ALAN COLMES (co-host): Why this particular issue [poverty] for you? Why has this been so important to you?

    EDWARDS: It's just something that touches my soul for a lot of reasons, because of the way I grew up, because of my faith. I was involved in urban ministries in Raleigh, which helps people in poverty and homeless, long before I got involved in politics.

  • From the February 20, 2005, edition of ABC's This Week:
    GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS (host): I was struck by something you told the Charlotte Observer after the election. You said: "I wish we'd had better chances for me to talk about what my personal values are, how important my relationship with God is, how important my faith is in our day-to-day lives." Here's your chance: What do you want people to know about your relationship with God?

    EDWARDS: It's everything to me. My relationship with the Lord and my relationship with my family is everything to me, but -- and I want -- I think it is important when I said earlier, people should know what you're made of, what you believe in, what you -- what drives you every day. It's an -- my faith is an enormous part of my life, and that is part of who I am. But I don't believe the answer for us going forward is to invoke the Lord's name 55 times in a speech. I don't. I don't think, first of all -- I think it looks political. It looks like you just -- you're just moving around for politics' sake. I think people want to know who you are and what you're made of.

    STEPHANOPOULOS: So how does your faith inform your politics?

    EDWARDS: It in -- it informs everything I do, not just my politics. I mean, when I have hard times in my life -- and we've been blessed. My family has been blessed, but we have had some hard times, and my relationship with the Lord is enormously important to me -- not just then, but all the time.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (OH)

  • From his December 12, 2006, presidential campaign announcement speech:
    KUCINICH: This is a moment that we need to call our Democratic leaders to courage. This is about leadership, clear vision, and integrity. The people were behind us in November. They are behind us now. We must stand by our word and bring the troops home now.

    I am the only member of the House and the Senate running for president who has consistently voted against funding for the war, based on a principled opposition.

    I was against the war then. I am against it now. A leader must have not just hindsight, but foresight. The prophet Isaiah said, "Without vision, a people perish." I am stepping forth at this moment because I believe, as did Lincoln, that "this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from this earth." Thank you.

  • From his book, A Prayer for America (Nation Books, November 2003):
    We need a new vision of America, as a nation among nations, as a strong presence but not as king of a unipolar world dictating policy on behalf of global corporate interests. We need a vision that connects workers and all people in the highest causes of the human spirit: peace and justice. This will be the crowning achievement of an American Restoration, the liberation of people all over the world.

    As we face the challenges ahead. let us recall the plea of the Prophet Isaiah: "To unlock the shackles of injustice? To break every cruel chain? Then shall your light shine in the darkness. Your people shall lay the foundations for ages to come. You shall be called repairer of the breach. Restorer of the streets to dwell in."

    It is the light of the men and women of Labor that will shine in the darkness. They will lay the foundation for ages to come. They will repair the breach. They will lead the American Restoration. [Page 110]

Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack

  • From his October 12, 2006, speech to the Council on Foreign Relations:
    VILSACK: I was in church the other day, and what they do at my church is give you the bulletin before the service -- which is a mistake for me, because I read the bulletin instead of listening to the sermon. So I'm looking at the bulletin, and what struck me about this church bulletin from Saint Catherine's was the following: "Some simple steps to reduce global warming." In the church bulletin, there are three steps to reduce global warming, and I'm reading this and it says, "Each week" -- each week -- "the church bulletin is going to contain tips to reduce global warming."

    This week's tips, for your benefit: Run the dishwasher full with the energy saving setting to dry dishes. That will save up to 200 pounds of carbon emissions. Wash your clothes in warm or cold water -- which, honey, by the way, I do. That's 500 pounds a year that you save. Turn the thermostat on your water heater down to 120 degrees. That saves another 500 pounds.

    The power of this is simply this: If we have a concerted effort at energy security -- we can ask every single American to participate in this -- everyone can have a role, everyone can play a significant part. We can establish a sense of community and unity in this country that does not exist today. We can provide common purpose. We can provide a more innovative and creative economy. We can reclaim moral leadership. We can become a safer America. We can become a single community, one nation, under God. This is the opportunity for us to unite this country at a time when all of us feel separated from each other. It is an enormous opportunity.

  • From his June 13, 2006, speech to the Take Back America conference:
    VILSACK: It's not an America where we can talk about the security and stability of community when we have 46 million Americans without the protection of health insurance, where our national commitment to our children's education amounts to no more than an under-funded slogan, where many of those who are relying on pensions no longer have the stability of those pension systems, and we're told that the promise of social security and Medicare at some point may be uncertain for future generations. All of this is combined with the fresh memories of a failed national effort with Katrina. And our feeling about community is not as strong as it needs to be.

    Now, as I talk about community, let me explain to you what I mean by that. The best way I can do that is by relating a story of a recent church service my wife and I attended, where the priest came out and he wanted to explain to the children of the church the Gospel he was about to read. It was a wonderful story of the loaves and fishes; you all may be familiar with it. It's a story in which Jesus is giving a sermon. He sees 5,000 hungry people. He says to his disciples, go feed the people. The disciples basically take a look at what they have. They have a few loaves of bread, a couple of fish, and they express doubt as to whether or not it's possible to feed 5,000 people. But Jesus said, pass the baskets. And the baskets were passed and everyone was fed. And when they got the baskets back there was more food than when they started.

    It is a powerful metaphor for the strength of community, that when we look out for each other, not only do we benefit individually, but collectively we are stronger and better off. But the priest explained it this way.

    The priest explained it this way, he said, what Jesus did in that story, he's removed the fear of sharing. He removed the fear of sharing. And my concern today in America is that those in charge of our national government are making us more fearful of sharing. They are not removing the fear of sharing with the hope of community.

Sen. John Kerry (MA)

  • From his July 29, 2004, Democratic presidential nomination acceptance speech:
    KERRY: I think of what Ron Reagan said of his father a few weeks ago, and I want to say this to you tonight: I don't wear my religion on my sleeve, but faith has given me values and hope to live by, from Vietnam to this day, from Sunday to Sunday.

    I don't want to claim that God is on our side.

    As Abraham Lincoln told us, I want to pray humbly that we are on God's side.

    And whatever our faith -- whatever our faith, one belief should bind us all: The measure of our character is our willingness to give of ourselves for others and for our country.

    These aren't Democratic values. These aren't Republican values. They're American values. We believe in them. They're who we are. And if we honor them, if we believe in ourselves, we can build an America that is stronger at home and respected in the world.

Edwards previously mentioned the Abraham Lincoln story during the February 7, 2002, National Prayer Breakfast.

The Democrats' 2000 presidential nominee, then-Vice President Al Gore, and vice presidential nominee Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (CT) also discussed their faith during the campaign.

From the February 11 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press:

RUSSERT: David Broder, my ear heard something that I had not heard from Democratic candidates in some time. Up front, Senator Obama began his speech with references to his faith, and then came back to that same issue in the speech. Let's watch.

[begin video clip]

OBAMA: Giving all praise and honor to God for bringing us together here today.


OBAMA: It was in these neighborhoods that I received the best education that I ever had and where I learned the meaning of my Christian faith.

[end video clip]

RUSSERT: What's that about?

BRODER: It's about values and about linking to the strains that are so powerful in our country of religious belief.



Tim Russert
Meet the Press
Religion, John Edwards, Tom Vilsack, Barack Obama, Dennis Kucinich, Hillary Clinton, 2008 Elections
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.