WASHINGTON – Up against one of America's most publicly pious presidents, the Democrats who hope to replace him have taken to reminding voters that they believe in God, too.
From the Rev. Al Sharpton (search), an ordained Pentecostal minister at age 9, to Howard Dean (search), lampooned for switching Protestant denominations because of a feud over a bike path, the presidential candidates are battling the perception that Democrats aren't at home with issues of faith.
"We've got to talk about it," said Sen. Joe Lieberman (search), an Orthodox Jew who refrains from campaigning on the Sabbath. "Otherwise, the Republicans will get away with convincing people that they have some kind of monopoly on values and faith."
Republicans have long been associated with religious issues because of their alliance with conservative Christians. Democrats traditionally tread lightly to avoid offending any part of their more diverse religious base — black Protestants, Jews, members of minority religions and secular voters.
Republicans call for prayer in school and faith-based initiatives; Democrats preach separation of church and state.
"I don't make decisions in public life based on religious belief," says Sen. John Kerry, who professes a strong Roman Catholic faith but, contrary to the church, supports legal abortion and civil unions for gay couples.
Obligatory visits to black churches are usually all the religious display necessary to win the Democratic nomination. But those who study faith and politics say the Democratic nominee will need to do more to chip away at President Bush's popularity with regular churchgoers.
"What you see now are the various Democratic candidates kind of groping for a religious strategy," said political scientist James Guth of Furman University. "For some of them, it doesn't come naturally."
Dean, especially, has stumbled. He named Job as his favorite book of the New Testament; it's in the Old Testament. He announced plans to talk about God more in the South, drawing accusations of pandering.
The former Vermont governor raised eyebrows by explaining he quit the Episcopal Church when his local diocese fought relinquishing land for a lakefront bike path that he championed. He switched to the Congregational Church.
"I'm a religious person, too. I just don't talk about it much," said Dean, attributing this reticence to New England custom.
In contrast, Bush's religious language "seems to be a part of who he is, not strained, not forced," Guth said. As prominent religious historian Martin E. Marty puts it, "Bush has that sewn up. With him, it's just there."
Almost two-thirds of Americans think Bush strikes the right balance in how much he mentions his religious faith, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
Kerry and other Democrats have criticized Bush for mixing his religion into administration policies, but a majority of Americans find the president's reliance on religion in policymaking appropriate, Pew says.
Still, religious voters seem motivated more by a candidate's stands on the issues than whether he attends church regularly.
Marty notes that conservative Christians loved Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, whose personal beliefs were hard to pin down but whose policies reflected those voters' beliefs.
Several Southern Democrats have been openly religious — notably born-again Christian Jimmy Carter, but also Bill Clinton and the last Democratic nominee, Al Gore. In the current race, Lieberman often speaks of drawing on morality and faith to uplift the nation.
But Democrats tend to focus on different moral issues than Republicans.
Religious conservatives emphasize individual morality, such as abortion and family values, while Democrats speak of striving for peace and aiding the poor and the sick.
Wesley Clark, a Catholic who attends Presbyterian services, sums up the Democratic take this way: "All religions have one thing in common. If you are more fortunate you should reach out to people who are less fortunate."
Politicians have "a moral responsibility" to help those living in poverty, says Sen. John Edwards, who is Methodist.
Sharpton, an outspoken underdog in the race, says his party can't allow Republicans to claim the moral high ground "without dealing with broad social immorality":
"They say, if you have a nice, well-knit family, and the well-knit family stays together, you have good values, while they take day care from the kids, employment from the father and the rights from the mother."