NASHVILLE--On Tuesday afternoon I asked Bill Sumners, the quiet archivist of the Southern Baptist Historical Library here, if there was a good bookstore in town. His secretary chimed in: "Which denomination?"

That's the kind of city Nashville is. The Grand Ole Opry, live country music in every bar and grill during lunchtime, the whole town hickory-smoked by the numerous barbecue joints lining Broadway--and the beneficent eyes of the churches, Baptist and Methodist and Church of Christ and Episcopal and Presbyterian, keeping watch at every intersection.

Tuesday night, speaking to the citizens of this churched city, Vice President Al Gore celebrated his primary victories at a hotel just west of downtown. His 15-minute speech, however, might just as easily have been delivered to the electricians' union hall, or the Ethical Culture Society. Mentioning "God" but once--"Thank you, God bless you, good night"--he filled the speech with promises of affordable college education, lower national debt, more secure Social Security, and healthier HMO patients. "If you believe in civil rights and equal rights . . . and an end to racial profiling, then join us now," he said. If you believe in a woman's right to choose, remember that "the Supreme Court is at stake," he said. "And," he added, "our campaign is your cause."

That was his preacher's refrain for the night, and it was also an insight into what may be Gore's "religion strategy" for the summer and fall: say nothing religious, but speak in unmistakably religious motifs and cadences. Perhaps Gore has drawn a lesson from the Republican primary contretemps over religion and is using a more subtle strategy. At Tuesday's primary victory gala, he seemed to be attending to black and Christian voting blocs with cultural cues, such as country music, and with populist policies, rather than with religious policy sops.

Gore did not just avoid explicit God-talk; he steered clear, too, of the religiously colored issues that are supposed to be so appealing to centrist New Democrats, groupies of thinkers like Princeton professor John DiIulio and Boston's Rev. Eugene Rivers, who promote church/state cooperation in solving social ills. At no point did Gore praise the work of inner-city ministries; not once did he suggest "coalitions" between public dollars and the private sector. The only allusion to a religious agendum, left or right, was his promise not to beggar the public schools in order to fund private-school vouchers.

This kind of resolutely irreligious talk might seem to be bad politics, even in front of a friendly crowd. But for some reason, it was clear, Gore (or his handlers) had chosen to endorse no policy even distantly associated with religious lobbies.

And yet: this rather stiff product of an Episcopal boys' school, a man whose suits seem to wear him, was sounding like the born-again Southern Baptist he now claims to be. In addition to his "Our campaign is your cause" refrain--the best white-boy orator's riff since Ted Kennedy's "Where was George?" at the 1988 Democratic National Convention--we were treated in Nashville to at least two versions of a familiar metaphor: "Together let us stand at this mountaintop moment, and look forward to what our country can become." Mountaintop.

The rhetorical motifs were not the only attempts to give the evening a more old-time-religion flavor. All the music resonated with blacks and evangelical whites. The party began in the ballroom, while Gore was still in seclusion upstairs, with two country music singers, including Kathy Mattea. Then came "Sir Duke," Stevie Wonder's glorious Motown paean to Ellington, Basie, Armstrong, and Fitzgerald. After a Bachman Turner Overdrive interlude ("Taking Care of Business," perhaps to please the country rock set), more rhythm and blues.

The evening's musical program may, of course, have reflected little more than the tastes of some Gore advance man newly minted by an Ivy League law school. But a recent college graduate who's been on the Gore team since the spring, and spent six months in New Hampshire, told me, "Every Sunday campaign schedule I've seen begins with a church appearance. And more of the churches are A.M.E. than anything else." Given his Tennessee heritage, and his and his father's historic support from the state's African-Americans, the strategy seems sensible.

This is true especially as the Christian right's agenda becomes more albatross than eagle's wings for both parties. The Bob Jones University flap led even Bob Jones III to change his mind (the university just lifted its ban on interracial dating); and never did the vice president get more applause Tuesday night than when he affirmed his pro-choice politics.

Vouchers and church-based government services may continue to be popular ideas, but in Tuesday's speech Gore showed his calculation that religion is best left out of politics altogether. He may try to sound like a preacher, but look for Gore to be delivering speeches, not sermons from a pulpit.

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