In a striking shift in strategy on the stump, Democratic presidential candidates are attempting to enlist God on their side to counter President George W Bush’s overwhelming popularity among religious voters.
Howard Dean, the Democratic frontrunner, is the latest to try the tactic. Despite previously sticking to his pledge to keep “God and guns” out of politics, he all but recruited Jesus Christ as a liberal Democrat in an interview over the Christmas period.
For his part, Gen Wesley Clark has begun speaking in church halls throughout the South and has hired a Roman Catholic sociologist. A specialist in religious psephology, the aide is advising the general on reaching out to “convertible Catholics” who might be persuaded not to vote again for Mr Bush in November.
According to a survey released last month, two out of three church-goers voted in 2000 for President Bush, a passionate evangelical who has described Jesus as his “favourite political philosopher”. Among evangelical Christians – of whom there are millions – his support rises to 87 per cent.
In the South, where church attendance is highest, Democratic strategists are advising that a secular candidate would be all but unelectable against President Bush.
Finally, it seems, that the President’s potential opponents next November are getting the message. In Washington, thinktank seminars are being held offering crash courses for Democrats in religious imagery and rhetoric.
For a party that has become steadily more secular in recent years, it is a remarkable change of emphasis. In the most dramatic turnaround, Mr Dean, a Congregationalist, apparently sought to claim that Christ was a liberal.
“Christ was someone who sought out people who were disenfranchised,” said the former governor of Vermont, “people who were left behind. He fought against self-righteousness of people who had everything. He was a person who set an extraordinary example that has lasted 2,000 years, which is pretty inspiring when you think about it.”
In Iowa last week, where the first Democratic presidential caucuses will be held, Mr Dean warmed to his new theme, attacking Christian conservatives and launching an apparent broadside at Wall Street speculators.
“Let’s get into a little religion here,” he said at one meeting with voters, “Don’t you think Jerry Falwell [a fundamentalist Baptist minister] reminds you a lot more of the Pharisees than he does of the teachings of Jesus? And don’t you think this campaign ought to be about evicting the money changers from the temple?”. He was referring to a group of high priests and sacrilegious money markets in Jewish temples during the time of Christ
Whatever the basis for Mr Dean’s new-found religious zeal, he will encounter a good deal of scepticism among Southern voters and has already earned the scorn of conservative commentators.
“On the eve of the primary season in the Bible Belt, Dean has found religion,” Zev Chasets, a newspaper columnist, wrote last week. “And not just any religion. That old-time religion. He claims he is a committed believer in Jesus Christ and plans to include his relationship with his Saviour in his hitherto godless campaign speeches.
“This will probably come as a surprise to Jesus. It will not, however, shock Southerners long accustomed to the Northern belief that they will swallow anything.”
Since the rise of the Christian Right as a political force during the 1990s, and the election of an evangelical president, Democrats have tended to distance themselves from overtly religious rhetoric, although both Bill Clinton and Al Gore made use of their Southern Baptist roots from time to time.
“We need better to connect policies with religious values,” said Ed Kilgore, the policy director of the influential Democratic Leadership Council, which provided the backing for Mr Clinton’s presidential campaigns. “Silence on God isn’t golden as far as Democrats are concerned. The Bible is not all about abortion and homosexuality. It’s also about injunctions to take care of the poor and social justice.
“Why shouldn’t we talk about ‘God’s green earth’ when we outline policies to protect the environment?” The battle to “re-claim” religion for Democrats will be an uphill struggle. Throughout his time in office, President Bush has relentlessly underlined the importance of prayer and faith in his everyday life.
The last State of the Union speech even quoted from a popular evangelical hymn, allowing President Bush to talk of the “wonder-working power”, in the idealism and faith of ordinary Americans. Prayers are held before meetings in the White House. The President spoke explicitly of the importance of his own faith in the lead-up to the Iraq war.
In the American South where church attendance is highest of all, President Bush carried all 13 states in 2000.
“The President is skilful and effective in his religious rhetoric because he is credible,” said Mr Kilgore, “It’s clearly something important in his life and he comes across as sincere. Democrats have had that before, with Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, but there has been a reticence among the present presidential candidates to talk about their faith.”
All nine Democratic candidates claim to believe in God. But aside from the Rev Al Sharpton and the orthodox Jewish candidate Joe Lieberman, both unlikely to win the nomination, none of the frontrunners has star potential as preachers.
Gen Clark, whose father was Jewish, was brought up as a Methodist, converted to Catholicism before serving in Vietnam and now attends Presbyterian church services. In a carefully placed interview with an ecumenical website, Gen Clark has attempted to explain his complicated spiritual life:
“I’m spiritual,” said the general, “I’m religious. I’m a strong Christian and I’m a Catholic but I go to a Presbyterian church. Occasionally I go to the Catholic church, too.”
As one senior Democrat commented: “He’s taking the religious idea very seriously. But it’s quite a confusing biography to present.”