DES MOINES, Iowa – As six of the GOP presidential hopefuls sat in the sanctuary of First Federated Church last night around an oval table adorned with the orange and gold fruits of autumn, it was clear the Thanksgiving Family Forum was going to be a far cry from the standard debates broadcast by the mainstream media.

Chuck Hurley, vice president of The Family Leader, which was sponsoring the event, set the tone for the evening by summarizing the words of one of America’s Founding Fathers, Noah Webster: “It is alleged that religion and morality are not necessary qualifications for political office. But the Scriptures teach a different doctrine. They direct that rulers should be able men, such as fear God, men of truth and men who hate bribes.”

Indeed, the candidates – Rep. Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rep. Ron Paul, Gov. Rick Perry and Rick Santorum – were urged to answer at length questions not likely to be asked by ABC moderators, such as, “What’s your worldview?” “What’s the moral justification for war?” and, “What is something you would like to ask forgiveness for?”

Organizers of the event said it was held in the Des Moines church for a reason:

“For people of faith to remove their voice fom the public policy process is spiritual negligence,” argued Family Leader President Bob Vander Plaats. “We don’t need the church to be political. We don’t need them to be Republican or Democrat … but we need you to be biblical.”

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Referring to Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus status, Vander Plaats added, “The whole world is looking at us to see who we believe should be the next president of the United States.”

And while the candidates’ temptation may have been to affirm how much they have common with one another and with religious voters, the forum also served to show sharp contrasts in how the presidential hopefuls would walk out their faiths in office.

Each of the candidates, in different ways, distinguished themselves from the others.

Bachmann, for example, shared in detail the story of how, at 16, she “gave [her] life over to the Lord” and how she “came to know Jesus, personally,” a testimony of faith that clearly resonated with many evangelicals in the audience.

Santorum set himself apart as the candidate with experience at passing values legislation – namely a ban on partial-birth abortion – and battling the Supreme Court, insisting America “can’t wait” for constitutional amendments or court decisions on abortion and the definition of marriage, arguing, “As president, you have to go out to each state and lead the debate.”

The former Pennsylvania senator also captivated the audience and stunned the stage to silence with the tale of his daughter, born with the typically fatal condition trisomy 18. His gripping story recounted trying and failing to resuscitate his dying child, only to watch his wife bring the baby back from the brink. He talked about shielding himself from the grief of losing baby Bella by resolving not to love her, only to be stunned by the hypocrisy of battling abortion while thinking of his own daughter as less than a person.

Santorum’s answer was the only one clearly addressing the question from pollster and moderator Frank Luntz, “What’s something you would seek forgiveness for?”

Some of the sharpest contrasts, however, came when Luntz pushed the candidates to clarify the role of the federal government in confronting the major ethical issues of the day. Can the president really lead in shaping the values of society?

Gingrich jumped out of the gate with a bold challenge to reinstill the notion of “our Creator” referenced in the Declaration of Independence in all of society, even the schools.

“We’ve attempted to create a secular nation,” Gingrich said, “which I think is a nightmare.”

“There is no neutral,” claimed Santorum. “There is moral, and there is immoral, and law must reflect what is good and true and right.”

Cain won applause by insisting people of faith must not be afraid to “fight back” against political correctness, and Bachmann suggested there is a “great amount of censorship today in the pulpits” and said she would back repeal of the tax laws restricting churches from political activity.

Perry argued, “Somebody’s values are going to decide what gets voted on. … The question is, ‘Who’s values?'”

But Ron Paul excercized a note of caution in the discussion, claiming the goal of government isn’t to mold culture and criticizing “liberals” for using the power of government to protect people from themselves, saying “conservatives” can’t do the same.

“You can overdo it on both sides,” Paul said, arguing values should come from the families and churches, not the government.

Paul’s comments set off an even more lively debate when Luntz pushed for clarification on whether states, based on the U.S. Constitution’s 10th Amendment, should have the right to tell Washington “no” on moral issues.

Abortion, same-sex marriage and states’ rights

The two hot topics of abortion and same-sex marriage became even hotter when Luntz, as well as representatives from Focus on the Family and the National Organization for Marriage, questioned the candidates whether the issues were a matter for the states or whether Abraham Lincoln was right in claiming, “States do not have the right to do wrong.”

“States do not have the right to undermine the basic, fundamental virtues this nation was founded on,” Santorum said. “States do not have the right to do wrong.”

“Every human being is made in the image of God,” Bachmann states, “and needs federal protection.”

Paul, however, pressed for constitutional limits on federal power, arguing, “States definitely have the right to be wrong,” and that he would be “very cautious about nationalizing things.”

Perry suggested constitutional amendments defining life and marriage would take the controversy out of the states’ hands and said the president should lead the charge: “That’s the virtous road the next president of the United States needs to powerfully go down.”

Cain stumbled a bit when asked if he would support a life amendment, at first only signing it “if it came across my desk,” but then clarified he would champion it as well.

Gingrich took the debate a step further, suggesting Congress should take up the 14th Amendment power to define “personhood” as life from conception, then limit the Supreme Court’s ability to review the law, thus striking down Roe v. Wade “in one legislative motion.”

Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, at one point asked the candidates point blank if they would support a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

“No,” Paul answered succinctly.

The Texas representative argued there is too much federal government involvement in people’s lives as it is and illustrated from the biblical example of Israel crying out to the prophet Samuel for a king that the responsibility to do right is on the people and the churches, not “asking the king to solve these problems.”

Santorum, however, said an amendment was necessary because, as Roe v. Wade illustrated, the Supreme Court doesn’t like different laws across different states and would likely take up the issue. Insisting on 10th Amendment rights to define marriage, he said, would only result in putting the issue into the hands of nine judges.

Moral justification for war?

Paul, whose public statements on foreign policy have often run in clear contrast to the other candidates, was first to jump in when asked about the moral justification for war, alluding to, but not defining, St. Augustine’s principles of “just war.”

Paul further alleged every U.S. war since World War II has been illegal and said he would not go to war without a formal declaration of war from the Senate.

Cain argued the defense of freedom and liberty is the moral justification for war, but added, “I will not send our men and women into war unless I would send my own son or daughter.”

Bachmann and Gingrich both pressed that the U.S. cannot go to war unless it has clearly defined national interest, specific goals and is willing to commit “overwhelming force” to get the job done quickly.

Perry also cited American interests as a prerequisite and insisted generals, not congressmen, be allowed to set the rules of engagement on the ground.

Santorum took the opportunity to discuss policy about Iran, arguing that the West has been in a 1,000-year war with radical Islam, a war the West had virtually won … until the Middle East discovered oil. Now, Santorum says, “We have a moral obligation to partner with the state of Israel.”

Gingrich, alluding to the Sept. 11 attacks, explained his thoughts on justified war: “You come into our country and kill 3,100 of our people, we will do whatever it takes to eliminate your capacity to threaten us again … [and] we couldn’t care less what the rest of the world thinks.”

So, who ‘won’ the forum?

Luntz explained that the purpose of the forum was to allow respectful discourse, free from the “gotcha” questions typical of other debates. The format allowed the candidates, notably Perry and Bachmann, to come across as comfortable and personable.

Gingrich scored several rounds of applause and laughter from the audience with quick wit and humor, while Santorum clearly stole the show for several minutes while telling the story of his daughter.

The evening was largely free of gaffes and goofs, though there was a testy exchange between Cain and Luntz, where the moderator was not convinced the candidate was adequately addressing the question, and Paul did give a long and somewhat disjointed answer to a question about trials and regrets.

Iowa talk radio host Steve Deace, an outspoken Christian who played a key role in propelling Mike Huckabee’s campaign here four years ago, told WND that Paul “got off to a strong start” and that Perry was “charming,” appearing more poised than he has in other appearances, but that the night really belonged to three others:

“I thought Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich helped themselves the most – but overall the field helped itself,” Deace summarized. “Gingrich again demonstrated he truly understands historically where we’re at as a civilization and what kind of leadership is needed. I thought Santorum should have been more forceful in asserting himself in the conversation, but was very thoughtful and transparent when he did. And for the first time Bachmann showed the public the woman I have seen in private. My guess is several people left the event willing to give her a second look.”

Event co-sponsor Citizen Link, an affiliate of Focus on the Family, has made video of the forum available on its website.

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