Howard Dean, the front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, has for the first time spoken openly about his Christian beliefs during the campaign, seeking to broaden his appeal to mainstream America.
The former governor of Vermont, endorsed last month by the former US vice president Al Gore, continues to gain momentum in the race for the nomination. But opponents argue that the straight-talking nominee who galvanised support with his anti-war stance needs substantial work on his image if he is to stand a chance against George Bush.
Religion and its importance among the southern and mid-western states is a crucial issue. President Bush, a born-again Christian who rarely overlooks the chance to invoke God, enjoys strong backing in the south: in 2000, he won every state in the “bible belt”.
Mr Dean, by contrast, is not a regular churchgoer and only a few months ago said he did not think religion “ought to be part of American policy”.
While the two previous Democrats in the White House, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, invoked God, Mr Dean has been labelled in the press as one of the “most secular candidates to run for president in modern history”, a fact that could make him “culturally alien to much of the country”.
Speaking to reporters last week, he said he simply “practised quietly”, and that frequent trips to the deeply religious southern states had made him more comfortable about talking openly about his faith. “I’m a New Englander, so I’m not used to wearing religion on my sleeve and being open about it,” he said.
“Faith is important in a lot of places, but really important in the south. I think I did not understand fully how comfortably religion fits in with daily life for both black and white populations in the south. As I have gotten older I’ve thought about what it means to be a Christian and what the role of religion is in my life.”
Mr Dean said he prayed daily and had read the Bible from cover to cover. Asked about his favourite book in the New Testament, he named Job (the story of a religious man whose faith is tested by God through suffering). An hour later, he admitted his mistake – Job is in the Old Testament.
Mr Dean grew up attending an Episcopal church but later became a Congregationalist after his local church refused to give up land for a cycle path. His wife is Jewish and their two children were raised with both faiths.
The race for the nomination begins in earnest this month when the first votes are cast in Iowa on January 19, followed by New Hampshire eight days later. Whether the southern public is or is not convinced about his religious mutterings will be evident on February 3, when South Carolina votes.
On March 2 the final votes are cast for the Democratic nomination in 10 states.