Over the past three years, Sen. John Kerry has had a lot of time to think about his God, and at a meeting with journalists in Washington earlier this month he shared those thoughts. He grew up in a Roman Catholic home before Vatican II; though devout, he prayed in private behind his closed bedroom door, as was the custom at the time. In Vietnam, he prayed to God to save his life, and when he came home some of his foxhole promises no longer felt so pressing. Kerry, a divorced, pro-choice Democrat with a foreign-seeming wife, ran for president in 2004 against an incumbent whose personal Christian-conversion story was intricately woven into his public persona. Yet, out of principle or stubbornness, Kerry chose not to expound upon his own faith until late in the race—too late, he says in retrospect. In the spring and summer of '04, a handful of U.S. Catholic bishops announced they'd refuse Kerry holy communion on the grounds that his stance on abortion went against church teachings, and Kerry suddenly found himself having to answer fundamental questions about who he was and what he stood for. "I should have started earlier to introduce who I really was—in '02 or '03," he told NEWSWEEK last week. He gave a big Catholic-values speech in Florida in October, but by then it was too late. "October is October. You've got to do this earlier," he says. "People have to have a sense of this as a continuum. Explaining how Catholicism has shaped my view of public life—it would have made a difference."
These revelations should be instructive to the field of '08 hopefuls, who as a group represent a dramatic range of religious views and observance, from Catholic to Mormon to— potentially—Jew, and from extremely orthodox (Mitt Romney) to much less so (Rudy Giuliani). Despite their religiosity or lack thereof, all will have to tell a convincing faith-and-values story to the American public—for Americans, though cynical about politicians, still love public piety. Although just 40 percent of Americans go to church every week, 70 percent say they want a president with strong religious faith, and 94 percent believe in God, according to an August survey by Pew. Kerry believes that a candidate doesn't have to be a regular churchgoer to be elected, but cannot under any circumstances be an atheist or agnostic. John Green, a fellow at Pew, agrees. "Supporting a candidate who's religious is shorthand for supporting a candidate with values and principles," says Green.
If Kerry is right, then a successful candidate must neither remain mute on the faith question nor pander, but tell an authentic personal-values narrative early and often. The thrice-married Giuliani, who told values voters last month that "I don't easily publicly proclaim myself as the best example of faith," seems to have passed the authenticity test: last week Pat Robertson endorsed him despite their many ideological disagreements.
Americans have elected and loved secular presidents before, from Thomas Jefferson, who decided to edit the miracles out of the Gospel stories, to Ronald Reagan, who, though a movie actor and not a regular churchgoer, was able to convince people of his sincerity and commitment to high principles. In the absence of an orthodox religion story, Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow suggests that candidates tell a story about "a sense of rebirth or change or insights or awakenings." As the religious right scrambles to cohere, perhaps this is a good moment to remember that authentic belief in God is a personal matter, and if half of Americans can't find God in church, maybe the president doesn't have to, either.