Presidential Hopefuls Talk Religion, Take Two

Some Democratic contenders missed the mark on the debate's prayer question.

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In Sunday's debate on ABC, Sen. Hillary Clinton displayed her prototypical propensity to put licked finger to the wind rather than say what she thinks. This is her signature flaw as a candidate. She can only play it safe and try to offend no one. By so doing, she fails to inspire confidence. Her answer to the religion question was, "I am very dependent on my faith and prayer is a big part of that." Talkin' loud and sayin' nothin.'

(Reminder: The religion question concerned whether the candidates believed that through the power of prayer, disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the Minnesota bridge collapse could have been prevented or lessened.)

Sen. Christopher Dodd mimicked Clinton's pabulumlike response, saying, "The power of prayer I think is important to all of us. I hope it is, recognizing that we don't do anything without his approval."

Former Sen. John Edwards was the first in the group to break out of safe mode and into reality. He explained that he'd prayed before his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer and before his son died. No amount of prayer prevented those personal disasters. "I think it is enormously important to look to God—and, in my case, Christ—for guidance and for wisdom," said Edwards. "But I don't think you can prevent bad things from happening through prayer." With those words, Edwards showed he is a deeply religious man, so confident in the power of his convictions that he can separate them from his role as a government official. He keeps those convictions where they belong: in the personal realm and reality-based.

In sum, Sen. Barack Obama's answer was entirely uninspiring, as was Sen. Joseph Biden's and those of almost all the rest of the candidates save one.

Gov. Bill Richardson's response was surprisingly impressive. He answered: "I pray. I'm a Roman Catholic. My sense of social justice, I believe, comes from being a Roman Catholic. But, in my judgment, prayer is personal. And how I pray and how any American prays, for what reason, is their own decision. And it should be respected."

Let's hope the other candidates recognize the courage it took for Governor Richardson to make that statement. No, prayer does not prevent or lessen disaster. It's not magic: It's prayer. The power of prayer is deeply personal, and prayer should not be used to frame government policy.