COLUMBUS, Ohio, Oct. 17 -- John F. Kerry is evolving from a reserved Catholic reluctant to discuss faith in the public square into a Democratic preacher of sorts who speaks freely and sometimes forcefully about religion on the hustings.
From the pulpit to the pastures, Kerry is increasingly spreading a more spiritual message and visiting local churches, as he did the past two days in Ohio, to expound on the political lessons of the Bible's James and Saint Paul.
In a weekend campaign swing through Ohio, Democrat John F. Kerry spoke at a Baptist church, above, and was a guest at a Catholic service.
(Gerald Herbert -- AP)
"Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come," Kerry intoned Sunday morning at Mt. Olivet Baptist Church. " 'Tis grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home." He told the crowd of 1,500 he wasn't there to preach but went on to, well, preach about the Good Samaritan, the emptiness of a faith devoid of deeds and God's high calling to love one another -- before criticizing from the pulpit President Bush over Social Security and jobs.
A few hours later, Kerry borrowed from the Book of James to condemn the president for failing to help the suffering people of Darfur, Sudan. "Words without deeds are meaningless -- especially when people are dying every day," Kerry said in a statement issued by his campaign.
Tens of millions of Americans were introduced to the candidate's spirituality during the final debate, in which Kerry talked at some length about the Catholicism he says guides his ideology and life.
"My faith affects everything that I do, in truth," Kerry said during the debate last week in Tempe, Ariz. The candidate is planning to further elaborate on faith, family and values in a speech this week, aides said.
It wasn't always this way. For much of the campaign, Kerry resisted pressure from some Democrats, including aides, to discuss his faith more widely and mostly touched on the topic only before African American audiences on Sundays.
In an interview with The Washington Post during the Democratic primaries, Kerry appeared hesitant to discuss religion. He steered the conversation toward his belief that Bush was blurring the lines between church and state in dangerous ways.
In July, Tad Devine, a longtime Kerry friend and strategist, said the candidate clings to a tradition of keeping religion a "private matter."
So what prompted the change? A top aide said Kerry has simply grown more comfortable publicly "opening up" about God and faith, as the campaign has progressed and opportunities have arisen (such as the third and final debate, when several questions about faith were posed). It is part of a broader effort by an introverted Kerry to share more about his life and experiences, the aide said. One of Kerry's new lines is how there are three great teachers in life: parents, schoolteachers and God.
But some friends say that Kerry also has gained a deeper appreciation of how voters in many of the battleground states -- from Hispanic Catholics in New Mexico to evangelical Christians in rural Ohio -- seek candidates of faith, or at least desire reassurance that their president shares most of their values.
In some ways, it is unavoidable. In Ohio last week, Kerry was greeted by a large billboard screaming "Vote the Bible" and by signs reading "Christians for Kerry." At a town-hall meeting in Xenia, a Democrat in the audience pulled Kerry into the debate over faith in politics with a pointed faith-based question. A few hours later, a Roman Catholic priest in nearby Chillicothe praised his religious beliefs at a Saturday afternoon service arranged for the traveling candidate.
"If dare we say by the grace of God the brother should be the one chosen to lead, it is our hope he will one day come back to us and celebrate with us as president of the United States, not in this small room, but in the church where we will do it openly, publicly, proudly," the Rev. Lawrence L. Hummer of St. Mary's said on Saturday.
A few hours later at a family-owned farm, Kerry talked about "God's blessing" of the mountains, sky and lands around him. "You get a sense of how blessed we are," he said at an event, where he also was given a rifle and told supporters he would be hunting in these parts next week.
Stanley Greenberg, Kerry's pollster, said a higher percentage of voters has to come to view Kerry as a man of character and truth -- attributes some Democrats say are strengthened by the candidate's public embrace of God and by his display of moral values such as personal opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.
To be sure, Bush speaks more frequently and often with more passion about religion, and enjoys a huge advantage among white evangelical Christians. In 2000, Bush won more than two of every three votes from people who said they attended church at least once a week, according to a post-election study by the University of Akron.
Some call this the "God gap": The less frequently people attended church, the more likely they are to vote Democratic. Greenberg said that, if anything, Bush is doing even better with evangelicals this time.
But political scientists say a large number of more casual Christians and Roman Catholics are considered important swing voters. Catholics, in particular, are being targeted by both candidates in the final days of this campaign.
As he expounds on faith and politics, Kerry draws a sharp contrast with Bush on how the Bible instructs government leaders, as well as with many Catholics over fealty to church doctrine.
The religious divide, not unlike the political one, comes down to siding with liberals in the church over the more orthodox conservatives. Kerry, for example, has broken with some Catholic leaders who say it is a sin for a politician to support abortion rights. In the final debate, the Democratic candidate made it clear he opposes abortion as an "article of his faith," but would never appoint a Supreme Court justice who favors overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision establishing a woman's right to an abortion.
Kerry instead seeks to broaden the discussion to the Catholic Church's teachings against war and the death penalty and for helping the poor, hungry and homeless. That is why the candidate frequently quotes from the New Testament's James, who wrote about how faith without works is dead.
"I see deeds and I see a whole lot of things that when you add them up, make you wonder about the public words about values versus the public deeds and works that show values," Kerry said at the Baptist church here.
This, aides say, is Kerry's way of calling into question Bush's commitment to the teachings of the New Testament. In what has become a familiar refrain of Kerry's sermons, he told the story of the Good Samaritan to illustrate God's calling to help the least of America's people.
"This," he said, "is how you reach the kingdom of Heaven."