Nearing the end of the most religion-infused election campaign since 1960, Sen. John Kerry is making a bid to close the perceived "God gap" between the two political parties.
To convince undecided voters - particularly religious moderates in swing states - that he stands for their deepest concerns, the Democratic candidate is speaking more frequently in the language of faith. Framing the issues in moral terms and showing how religious values undergird his policy choices, Senator Kerry hopes to broaden the values debate and to show that he is as much a man of faith as is President Bush.
But the Democrats are playing catchup on the religion front, and the question is whether this effort, including the speech Kerry gave Sunday devoted to religious ideals and values, will give voters a more satisfying glimpse of the candidate, or be "too little, too late."
Surveys have shown not only that most Americans want a man of faith as president, but that they see the Republican party as more "religion-friendly."
But if the Democrats are seen as the more secular party, studies show that a realignment is going on among religious Americans. Groups such as Catholics, Protestants, and Evangelicals all include people who range from traditionalists to centrists to "modernists" in terms of faith.
The latest evidence is the split among Roman Catholics over the challenge to Kerry by some bishops and conservatives based on his support of abortion rights. Other Catholics have come to his defense.
"A fault line runs through the denominations ... with moral absolutists on the one hand versus those who see shades of gray on the other," according to Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention. "Religion's role is increasing and will only continue to increase."
Pollsters say that many religious moderates - whether Catholic, Evangelical, or other - are still up for grabs.
"One reason Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania are so competitive is that they ... have a lot of 'centrist' groups," says John Green, director of Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. "There are votes to be had among white Christians."
While traditionalist Evangelicals are a core political base for the president, he adds, "Bush isn't doing well with liberal Evangelicals, and Kerry might even make inroads with centrist Evangelicals, who are for Bush but have a lot of reservations."
Recent polls suggest Kerry is making some headway. According to the Pew Research Center, white Catholic voters, who have consistently favored Bush over the past month, now lean toward Kerry by 50 to 43 percent (Hispanic Catholics are heavily Democratic). Kerry's pollsters also claim a recent survey shows he is winning among white mainline Protestants, a traditionally Republican group.
Within the Muslim community, major organizations that endorsed Bush in 2000 last week gave their qualified support to Kerry. The latest Zogby poll shows 76 percent of Muslims now backing Kerry.
Still, President Bush's persistent strength in the polls seems tied partly to the religious inflection of his presidency and the perception that he is a man of strong convictions. "His presidential identity has become thoroughly wrapped up with religion. The faith-based initiative is the domestic priority closest to his heart," says Mark Silk, who heads the Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. Religion "has also filtered into his foreign policy. Freedom is 'God's gift,' he says, and it's 'what we're giving to the world.'"
Kerry's rhetoric of religion
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.
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.
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.