True to his word, Kerry made his most expansive and impassioned remarks about faith, using Scripture to rebuke the policies of President Bush and his fellow Republicans. "Oh no, they didn't choose the least among us, they chose the most powerful among us," Kerry told the congregation at Mount Hernon A.M.E. Church, referring to Jesus' admonition in Matthew 25:40.
On issues ranging from health care to tax cuts, Kerry tied his faith to his social justice agenda, and at the same time tried to match Bush in religious fervor, a contest that has been lopsided so far, with far more voters viewing Bush as a man "of strong religious faith" and with regular churchgoers continuing to favor the incumbent over the challenger by a wide margin. The gulf is critical to Kerry's chances, since voters say by a 3-1 margin that they want a leader of firm religious convictions.
Whether Kerry's last-minute sermonizing will win voters over remains unclear.
What the 2004 campaign has already demonstrated, however, is that the candidates' disparate fortunes in connecting with the public on matters of faith can be tied not so much to their religious convictions-or to political tactics or Brahmin reticence, as many analysts would say-as to their religious denominations: Kerry is a Roman Catholic, and Bush is an evangelical Protestant, and therein lies a profound difference in religious language and imagery that plays a central political role in the persistent "God gap."
This is not a matter of making judgments on the substance of either faith tradition, nor on the sincerity each candidates' personal convictions. Rather, this attests to the vastly differing styles of these two traditions, and to how those styles resonate in the prevailing American religious culture.
Without indulging in complaints about old-time anti-Catholicism, the bottom line is that America has always been a Protestant country, from the colonial era of Pilgrim refugees seeking a "purified" faith, up to the 20th-century when Kerry's political forebear, John F. Kennedy, had to go before an audience of Protestant clergy and essentially disavow any ties to Rome.
In recent decades, that denominational Protestantism has ceded to a kind of free-style evangelical Protestantism that, despite its partisan claims to victimhood, is the regnant religious ethos-and one that is not confined to socially conservative evangelicalism. Today, the streams of revivalism and pietism that have always coursed through American society have washed over into almost every aspect of America's faith life. Like President Bush, Americans across the spectrum now define themselves as "spiritual" and not "religious," and they value a personal, confessional, "therapeutic" form of highly-individualized faith that relies on a one-on-one relationship to Jesus (or whomever) and values the powerful narrative of clamorous conversion (to whatever) over the "empty" rituals of institutional faith.
While many focus on Bush's religious rhetoric as an example of his attempts to mobilize his base among Christian conservatives, the real importance of Bush's God-talk is that his language appeals so far beyond his base.
In a real sense, we are all evangelicals now-which is why Kerry was compelled to be more forthcoming about his faith on the stump. Yet in a religious environment in which the "Social Gospel" is suspect and emotional authenticity is the only creed, it is the Catholic John Kerry, a loquacious wonk when it come to public policy, who trips over his own words, while the notoriously inarticulate President Bush becomes fluent and conversant as he discusses his evangelicalism.
Ask George Bush about his own faith life, for example, and he waxes about letting his "light shine" as a Christian, about praying regularly and reading the Bible (which he can quote readily and accurately) every day, of his belief that God is guiding him, both as a Christian and as politician. "I pray all the time," Bush said in the August issue of Charisma magazine. "You don't need a chapel to pray. Whether it is in the Oval Office.you just do it. That's just me."