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In final push, Kerry tries to close a perceived 'God gap'

Democrats hope to draw swing voters from ranks of religious 'moderates,' eyeing fault lines within churches.

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The Democrats lag behind, but not because the party lacks religious supporters. It's that the party backed away from talking in religious terms, members say, partly because of its many secular supporters, but also to separate itself from what many saw as a growing intolerant use of religion in public life.

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But some Democrats have said since the start of the campaign that it was time to remedy that, and to reframe issues in values terms. "Kerry needs to speak from a deep moral core from which he makes his policy choices," John Podesta, former Clinton chief of staff, told reporters in July.

On Sunday, Kerry finally did just that. "This campaign is about more than a set of policies; it is about a set of ideals," he said, and then discussed the biblically based values at the root of his politics.

At the center was the quote from the book of James that he used in the third debate: "It is not enough, my brother, to say you have faith when there are no deeds ... Faith without works is dead."

Kerry also speaks of the Good Samaritan as related to issues of health care and poverty, and of "stewardship," as it relates to the deficit and preserving the environment. On Sunday he emphasized seeking the common good and the moral obligation to care for the less fortunate.

Democrats also set up a website to connect with religious voters on values, after Republicans created several anti-Kerry sites aimed at specific denominations.

The faith factor's rise

Faith has become a high-profile issue in the campaign for many reasons, observers say. Particularly in difficult times, Americans look for leadership with a strong moral compass, and polls show they believe religion provides the firmest base for morality. The impact of the religious vote in 2000 - in which weekly churchgoers went heavily for Bush over Al Gore - spurred the idea of a "religion gap" and confirmed the rising clout of the religious right in Republican politics. This led Republicans to center their strategy even more fully in churches this year.

"The conservative white Evangelical churches have become the engines of the Republican Party in the South," says Dr. Silk. "What's gone on this political year with the [Karl] Rove operation is to try to extend that style quickly to other parts of the country, like Pennsylvania." The party's unprecedented bid to use church and parish rosters in such states raised hackles, even among supporters. Along with solidifying their base, Republicans have shown gains among conservative Catholics and orthodox Jews.

Their vigorous efforts also galvanized more active involvement by moderate and progressive faith groups, which have mounted voter registration campaigns, and national efforts to raise ethical questions about preemptive war, poverty, and the war on terror. "We're now in a debate for the heart and soul of what it means to be religious and political," says the Rev. Jim Wallis, a liberal Evangelical who just finished an antipoverty bus tour to 15 cities.

The greatest intensity over religion, however, comes from this year's mix of issues.

"Same-sex marriage and the war in Iraq have engaged religious people across the spectrum," says Dr. Green. And they've brought divisions within denominations and among Evangelicals into the open.

This comes after a major shift in American religion and politics has united conservative Roman Catholics and Evangelicals - once adversaries - on the issues of abortion, gay marriage, and stem-cell research.

With so many talking about religion in the campaign, what will be telling in the end, Mr. Wallis says, will be what voters decide genuine religious values to be.