As the 2000 election moves into high gear, the role of religion in politics has taken an ironic twist.
On the one hand, political observers expect religious conservatives to play a smaller role in this election than at any time since the movement took formal shape 12 years ago. The Republican-oriented Christian right has not settled on any one consensus candidate in the GOP presidential nomination race. It's the mainstream Republican establishment - more eager to back a perceived winner than to promote a particular ideology - that is driving party activism.
And yet candidates from both parties are feeling freer than at any time this century to discuss their religious beliefs.
"It's a surprising thing," says John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron in Ohio. "You have to go back about 100 years to find a campaign where you've had so many candidates, especially front-runners, talking of their faith."
The question is, why is this happening? And will this trend alter the races, either in the primaries or in the general election?
Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the national front-runner for the Republican nomination, sparked discussion during the Dec. 13 GOP debate in Iowa when he was asked to name his favorite "political philosopher or thinker," and cited Jesus (as did two other candidates: religious conservative activist Gary Bauer and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a well-known Mormon).
In a recent interview on "60 Minutes," Vice President Al Gore called himself a born-again Christian. Then in an interview in The Washington Post, Mr. Gore, a Southern Baptist, said he has often asked himself, " 'WWJD,' for a saying that's popular in my faith, 'What Would Jesus Do?' "
There are several reasons behind this new willingness among candidates to speak about their religious views, analysts say. One is that Americans are simply more accepting of public religious expression. The presidential candidacy of the Rev. Pat Robertson in 1988, which gave birth to the Christian Coalition and other religious-political groups, has made people more accustomed to talk of religion.
"Pat Robertson and Gary Bauer turned out to be not as frightening as people had originally thought," says Mr. Green.
The growth of the religious right also served to mobilize a "Christian left," with groups like the Interfaith Alliance and Road to Renewal. The overall result is there are many more religious voices in politics than there used to be.
Polls have shown a growing acceptance of religious discussion in politics. A 1996 survey by the Pew Research Center showed that a majority of the public now believes it's OK for churches and religious groups to express their opinions in public. When the Gallup Poll asked that question in the late 1960s, a majority of people said no.
Another factor today is the new political context: The economy is strong and the cold war is over. Moral and social questions - such as political scandals, school shootings, and drugs - have risen on the list of public concerns, and religion is a natural sphere to turn to in such matters. Candidates are picking up on that in their polling, say political experts, and are finding a certain comfort level among the public with religious talk, even in a nation that's more religiously diverse than ever.
As a direct bid for votes, talking religion may not have much net effect for the presidential candidates. In Mr. Bush's recent comments about Jesus, some people saw an effort to impress South Carolina voters - where the state GOP will hold an important early primary - but political analysts don't see Bush gaining much.
"I don't think he's moved a lot of people one way or another," says James Guth, an expert on the Christian right at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.
Bush's main rival for the GOP nomination, Arizona Sen. John McCain, is counting on the strong military presence in South Carolina to give him political strength there. And on the religious front, he calls his religious views a personal matter.
On the Democratic side, analysts don't see Gore's growing willingness to discuss his religious beliefs as helping or hurting overall. What he may lose in the Northeast, he might gain in the South. In the strongly Democratic Jewish community, Gore may lose a vote or two by so strongly identifying with his born-again Christianity.
But David Harris, of the National Jewish Democratic Council, says he hasn't heard any negative feedback on Gore's comments. "Gore repeatedly speaks about how it's crucial to make everyone feel included, including atheists," he says.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society