Tony Hall was a nonbeliever when he first came to Congress as a Democrat from Ohio. But he sensed a vacuum in his life and began going to a different church every Sunday, "hunting for God," as he puts it. After a year of searching, he says, "I finally came to the realization that it had a lot to do with this person of Jesus and I fell in love with it."

People would come over to his house for social occasions, he recalls, and ask him what was new. "I believe in Jesus," he would tell them. And then "it would get real quiet. People would be kind of looking at the ceiling, you know. And my wife would be kicking me underneath the table. And later she'd say, 'What's the matter with you? Are you nuts? You're not going to have any friends.' "

As the political climate heats up for Campaign 2000, Americans are hearing more and more about religion from the candidates. This is not surprising, since polls show that more than 90 percent of Americans say they believe in God, and the Christian evangelical movement makes up some 35 percent of the population. Texas Gov. George W. Bush volunteers that he has "recommitted his life to Christ," Elizabeth Dole talks about how she "humbled herself before God," Vice President Gore told reporters that "the purpose of my life is to glorify God." On the floor of the House, Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) states, "The focus must be returned to God."

The personal religious beliefs of politicians are aired, it seems, everywhere. Everywhere, that is, but at a cocktail party, as Tony Hall found out. Or in the office. Or at a sit-down dinner. Or anywhere else the city's political and media elite come together and talk to one another rather than shout.

Religion is "definitely a taboo subject," says Fred Barnes, executive editor of the Weekly Standard, who was a self-described atheist until he was born again. "I never talk about it in the office."

So ingrained is the culture of avoidance of religion, conservative syndicated columnist Cal Thomas thinks that it has kept him off Washington's roster of sought-after guests.

"One reason I'm not on anyone's A-list," says the religious author and columnist, formerly of the Moral Majority, "is that they're afraid I'll talk about God. . . . In this town you pay a social price for being upfront about your faith. People don't invite you to parties.

"From a worldly standpoint," he notes, "I have 503 newspapers. I should be top dog now. I'm not a flaming fanatic. I'm religious but not a weirdo. I don't wear polyester or white socks. But they say, well, we'll put him next to an ambassador and he'll talk about God. There's a feeling that if you're religious, you'll embarrass your friends. But I can talk about other things. I can talk about Kosovo or Columbine. By the standards of this town, I ought to be hot stuff. But we don't get invited anywhere. I've never been to a Georgetown party."

No stranger to Georgetown parties is presidential confidant Vernon Jordan, a religious man himself. He recently spoke about his faith in an address at Howard University, where he attended law school. "When the crises come," he told the students, "you must have [a] frame of reference, a source of strength, an intangible anchor that goes with you, stands by you and props you up on every weak and leaning side. Be it the New Testament or the Old, the Koran or the Torah. Be it Jesus, Moses, Allah or Buddha. Each of us must have that something within that brings balm to our soul and calm to our anxieties."

This Jordan said publicly in a chapel. But in a social situation?

"I don't talk about it," he says.

The Rev. Bill Tully, former rector of St. Columba's Church in Northwest Washington, is aware that the mere presence of a clergyman can kill the party spirit. "If I say I'm a minister, he says, "everybody puts their drinks down. It just changes the atmosphere."

Once, at a Washington social event that was not church-related, Tully, now rector of St. Bartholomew's in New York, decided to circumvent this bit of Washington anthropology. "A little imp on my shoulder made me say I was a private detective," he confides, "but because of the nature of my work I couldn't talk about it." Things went well, with lively conversation, until several parishioners arrived late in the party and announced that he was their minister. The woman he had been chatting with "just glared at me," he says.

Today in Washington, "people talk about sex much more readily than religion," says Bill Galston, a former domestic adviser in the Clinton administration and now a professor at the University of Maryland. "A hundred years ago, sex was private, religion was public."

Former judge Robert Bork, who was indifferent to religion until he married a former nun, has become a believer. But "I don't want to inflict it on anybody," he says. "And nobody wants to come across as someone who's obsessed."

Georgetown author and hostess Susan Mary Alsop confirms that religious talk would be severely frowned on at social gatherings. "I don't think that anyone that I would be apt to be fond of would discuss it," she says. "I mean, I go to Christ Church in Georgetown every Sunday and I wouldn't miss it, but I've never talked about it. It's very private. It's inappropriate socially, absolutely. It's not like foreign policy, not anything that would be discussed in my world, I'm afraid."

The Media Factor

"There's a polite-company thing about this," explains Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, a Catholic who guest-edited a recent issue of the Brookings Review titled "What's God Got to Do With the American Experiment?" "Etiquette is part of it, not wanting to cram your religious beliefs down others' throats. No one wants to offend anyone at the dinner table. And in some circles, religion is not acceptable. There is an intolerance of religion."

That's because two distinct groups mix at the dinner table, according to New York Times writer R.W. "Johnny" Apple, who calls himself a "failed Lutheran." In one group, he says, "it's quite unusual not to be religious, and in another group it's unusual to be religious. Among officeholders, there is tremendous peer pressure to be or appear to be religious. But the number of journalists and political operatives who I would consider religious is quite small."

That assessment is shared by columnist Bob Novak, who recently converted from Judaism to Catholicism. "The news media reflect the culture of Washington," he says. "They are very nonspiritual."

"If you're a Christian in journalism," says Barnes, "you're seen as a kook."

Apple thinks he knows why: People in the media "are somewhat uprooted. In our crowd, there's a mixture of ethnicity and geography. We have people who are nominal Catholics, Protestants, Jews, all schlupped together. That contributes to a low intensity of religious beliefs. We fall away from our roots."

Some see this phenomenon as explaining the superficial way religion is often approached in the media. Galston, the former Clinton adviser, says he is "confident that the overwhelming majority of the press is secular, which is yet another disconnect between the press and the people they are called on to cover. It may be more difficult to respect genuine faith when it's there. There is a point at which skepticism turns into dogmatism."

"So much has gotten lost in this debate," says NBC's Tim Russert, a practicing Catholic. "Somehow, if you're a Christian, you're conservative. If you're a journalist, you're an agnostic or an atheist. If people would lower their voices and not rush to judgment about faith, we'd be better off."

Cynical City

"Wherever there's religion, there's hypocrisy," Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic, says flatly. Wieseltier won't discuss his personal beliefs, but he recently wrote a book, "Kaddish," describing how he said the Jewish prayer of mourning every day for a year after his father's death. "Most people in politics don't believe in God, they believe in religion," he says. "The genuinely pious people I have known have been very quiet about it. Religion is not arm candy."

What most rankles the nonreligious in political Washington is the belief that they are being judged. Apple, who says, "I don't consider myself a religious person in any meaningful sense of the word," also acknowledges that "many Christians feel that you're not as good a person if you're not religious."

Senate Chaplain Lloyd John Ogilvie would not put it that way. Instead, he regards the nonreligious as cut flowers. "They have enough bloom, which is the impact of their training, what they have received from their parents," he says. "But there are no roots. Nothing to sustain it. It's very difficult for them without God's power."

(Ogilvie adds that he is certain that "there are no atheists in the Senate. None. In Washington there are many serious God-worshiping, God-seeking leaders. I know them. I care for them. They are my people.")

Billy Graham, who has ministered to every president since Truman, is of the same mind: "A person without any spiritual roots is like a ship without an anchor," he says, "drifting where the strongest currents happen to take him."

This kind of dismissal causes nonbelievers to bristle. When a House leader like DeLay proclaims that the "rejection of God must change," they consider it demagoguery. They don't believe they should be judged on the basis of their religious beliefs--or lack thereof. They tend to view all religious people cynically. Their view can be summed up in words written three centuries ago by Moliere in his play "Tartuffe": "Isn't there some distinction to be made between hypocrisy and piety?"

And so a spirit of mistrust reigns, with condescension on both sides.

"Christians are accused of being intolerant and judgmental," says columnist Thomas, "but the nonreligious play the same game. They don't want our company either."

The vice president points out that atheism created a "condescension toward a belief in God and a kind of patronizing assumption that anyone who did believe in God was irrational, weak-minded and superstitious." Gore says he turns to his faith "as the bedrock of my approach to any important question," and comfortably uses religious shorthand--"WWJD"--"for a saying that's popular now in my faith, 'What would Jesus do?' "

Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) is aware that when some people hear the word Christian, "they go 'yuck.' People associate the word with hypocrisy. People feel judged and condemned. Jesus didn't make them feel that way. He made them feel loved and valued."

"Most people in this city who have become successful are not Mother Teresa," says Naomi H. Rosenblatt, a biblical scholar who has been conducting a Bible study group in Sen. Arlen Specter's office for years. "Nobody with visibility in this city has taken a vow of poverty, humility and chastity." If they had, she adds, they probably "wouldn't be here."

But while "nobody's perfect," Rosenblatt comes down hard on "the hypocrisy of people using religion as a commodity to serve their purposes rather than using it to improve the moral nature and infuse the community with spiritual strength." That kind of behavior looks "suspiciously like idolatry," she says, conceding that "people who are not religious are sometimes more ethical than people who say they are."

Uneasy Standoff

Although the Constitution draws a line between church and state in this country, elements of religion have always been present to some extent in public life, and Americans have always been ambivalent about the separation. The Declaration of Independence, after all, refers to the "Creator," U.S. money proclaims "In God We Trust," and God was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. There is continuing argument over prayer in schools, and a recently passed bill allows states to display the Ten Commandments in the classroom.

"The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were written when some people believed in a form of Christianity called deism," Wieseltier says. "The God of the Founding Fathers was a non-interventionist God."

"Americans," says Michael Cromartie, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, "want to know that our leaders will call on the deity when in trouble."

Maybe so, but President Carter shocked Washington's political establishment in the '70s with his openness about his religious beliefs. Many mainstream politicians and journalists, faced with his spiritual frankness, regarded him as though he'd come from Mars.

But he paved the way for the politicians of today, who speak just as openly.

"Jimmy Carter was to evangelicals what JFK was to Catholics," says Dionne, a practicing Catholic. "He forced people to accept religion in public life."

Carter has earned praise from both secular and religious people in Washington. "In his speeches," says the Rev. Tony Campolo, a professor at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pa., "he did not invoke religion for what he did. He let his actions speak for themselves."

Tully is fascinated by the fact that George W. Bush talks openly about being a born-again Christian, and contrasts him with his father, who once was a parishioner at St. Columba's. President Bush "was an old-style Episcopalian. He was devout in his own way, but he wouldn't talk about it. He wouldn't feel comfortable in expressing it that way."

President Reagan, on the other hand, according to Tully, "could be religious in a public sense but not churchy." Tully was always amazed at Reagan's strong support from the religious right, since "he was clueless about churchgoing."

Hall, the congressman who found Jesus, says, "I don't think people want their politicians to stand up and say, 'Hey, I'm religious, I'm a Christian, I believe in God, I believe in Jesus, follow me.' . . . They're going to doubt you. I think it's a real turnoff."

Gore, too, says that when politicians talk as if they have a "direct line to God, the American people have a real resistance to that kind of appeal, and it's pretty healthy."

Bork maintains that much religious expression by politicians--"including the president, who carries a Bible to church--is for political effect rather than genuine religious belief."

Even the Rev. Jesse Jackson, no slouch at invoking the Lord, makes the distinction between religion and religiosity. "People who have religiosity wrap religion as a layer around their core political beliefs," he says. "It justifies what they do."

But is there anything wrong with that? "You cannot divorce decision-making from a person's moral and spiritual convictions," says Billy Graham. "This is as true for parents deciding how to rear a child as it is for politicians voting on an appropriations bill."

Indeed, in almost every case, those who are religious say their beliefs inform their decisions. But the decisions can be radically different, depending on one's politics. Equally religious people can believe either that President Clinton has sinned and must pay the consequences, or that he must be forgiven and allowed to redeem himself--witness independent counsel Ken Starr and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.). Equally religious people can differ over whether the war in Kosovo was a "just war" (as defined in the Dictionary of Christian Ethics) because innocent people were protected or an unjust one because innocent people were slaughtered.

Jackson knows that there are a lot of people who are suspicious of his religious convictions and who think he is just a publicity hound. And he has a ready answer for them.

"Jesus never performed any miracle at night!" he exclaims. "He turned water into wine before a crowd at a wedding feast. He came in to teach and lead by example. He healed a blind man before a crowd. The prophets were public. Jesus was public. You cannot end segregation or slavery in your private closet as a pious person. You cannot end prejudice by treating your maid right. Go forth and preach to the multitudes! This is in the biblical tradition. If you're very private, you don't hate nobody and you don't heal nobody."

Users and Used

Religious leaders who are called on to counsel the powerful often find themselves open to attack.

Graham, who has counseled so many presidents, comes in for criticism from Cromartie. "All presidents have used him to authenticate their politics."

"I get accused of being used by President Clinton," says Campolo, one of the president's three spiritual advisers. "It's a strange position. On the one hand, you have to recognize that he's a human being and he needs prayerful counsel and somebody to interpret the Scripture for him. Somebody has to do it. But the minute you do it, it has a political implication. Are you being used? I have no idea. Here's a man I love and a man I want to help. That's all I know. I have to ask the question about what my motivations are. Am I really doing it to serve Jesus Christ? That's a tough question to answer."

Clinton's Presidential Prayer Breakfast at the White House last September, at which he confessed that he had sinned and asked for forgiveness, and then talked about his "personal journey of atonement," provoked a declaration signed by almost 200 religious scholars of both the left and the right protesting "the manipulation of religion." "We fear the religious community is in danger of being called upon to provide authentication for a politically motivated and incomplete repentance that seeks to avert serious consequences for wrongful acts," it stated.

The Rev. Bryan Hehir, a Catholic priest and acting dean of the Harvard Divinity School, took Clinton to task about the breakfast as well. "He had a meeting of religious leaders and made it almost an abject apology but he was stonewalling all the way," he says. "I'd bring the moral rectitude of his actions under continuing criticism."

But Rep. Coburn says that if the religious right "really acted like Jesus did, then Bill Clinton would feel our love."

Prayer in Public

No one event focuses the debate over religion as much as the National Prayer Breakfast. This is an annual February gathering that draws several thousand religious leaders, political leaders, the sincerely religious and the sincerely politically ambitious to the Washington Hilton for a public affirmation of their religious commitment.

Many politicians feel they have to show up to prove their religious bona fides. Several years ago, Elizabeth Dole stunned political Washington by openly proclaiming Jesus Christ as her personal savior at the breakfast. Until then, she had followed the social dictate of not talking about her religion.

There are still many who are skeptical about the public and political nature of the Prayer Breakfast and and see it as a cynical use of religion for political reasons.

"One place where prayer is certainly not possible," says Wieseltier, "is at the National Prayer Breakfast. It is an annual institution for the degradation of prayer."

And Jackson, who has attended once or twice, says, "When it's over, it does not embrace the moral imperative to honor the religious mandate, to feed the hungry. From who reads the Scripture to the seating, it is a political platform. Politicians play religiosity. It's their politics informing their religion rather than the opposite."

Even Cal Thomas, who is involved in organizing the breakfast, says he is afraid it has changed from the original intention of building relationships across the divide to something akin to getting an award "like a scout badge." Thomas says the real work is at the small dinners the night before "for people with diverse opinions and no publicity."

Sen. Lieberman still finds some merit in the prayer breakfasts.

"I could see how it could strike people as more form than substance--or, at its worst, artificial," he says. "But my own impression is that most of the people there are there with full sincerity."

Says Bork: "That kind of major gathering may help some, but it lends itself to posturing. It becomes a social event, a place where people want to be seen."

In contrast are the Senate and House weekly prayer breakfasts, the Senate with some 20 regular members, the House with about 60. These are totally private and closed to the press.

And lawmakers attend prayer meetings elsewhere as well. Tony Hall, as well as others, regularly goes to a prayer group at the District's Martin Luther King Library. Recently at this group, a participant started speaking in tongues. "Somebody started screaming," Hall recounts. "It sounds like gibberish, almost like a foreign language." For people who are still searching for God, he says, even for a devout Christian like himself, "it can be threatening and scary. You have to be real careful."

Beliefs

Of course, many people in Washington are deeply--and quietly--religious. Because they don't talk about it, nobody knows who they are.

"The interesting thing is who at the dinner table are the secretly religious people," says Dionne. "There are all these 'in the closet' religious people floating around the city."

Sen. Lieberman is out of the closet because he is an Orthodox Jew who observes the Sabbath, which people tend to notice, since he won't even ride in a car on Saturdays. He is regarded as a truly religious person whose faith informs his life but who does not wear it on his sleeve. "People focus on the fact that I'm Sabbath-observant," he says, "because it's unique, I guess, in this office." But they tend to ask about the mechanics of it, "which is different, really, from getting into all that my faith does to order my life and give me a sense of purpose, to give me comfort and, in a different sense, to give me sanctuary."

One well-known agnostic, CNN's Larry King, has developed a live-and-let-live relationship with the believers he meets in Washington and often has on his show. "Those of us who are agnostic are on more of a search," he says. Religious people "have the answers to which we have constant questions." Even if he is not religious, he notes, "our values come from religion, come from the Ten Commandments."

"I hope the believers are right," King says. "I have respect for them. Billy Graham tells me I'm spiritual and I'll be with him in Heaven. It's comforting."

Tim Russert doesn't hesitate to say on "Meet the Press" that someone "is in our prayers." "People outside of Washington would be shocked" at how much faith there is in the capital city, he says.

People would be even more surprised at the number of Washingtonians who turn to alternative beliefs. Remember the furor when it became known that Nancy Reagan consulted her astrologer about even the takeoff and landing times of Air Force One?

Patricia McLaine, a psychic and tarot card reader who has read for at least one first lady, says she sees many powerful policymakers in Washington, and her clients may be Buddhists, Jews, Christians or nonbelievers. One priest came to see her, she says, to find out if he would be made a cardinal. (She told him it wouldn't happen.) "All religions will take people to the same place if they practice spirituality within themselves," she says.

Caroline Casey, daughter of the late Rep. Joseph Casey (D-Mass), is a mythologist and astrologer who has done the charts of lawmakers, generals, White House officials, ambassadors and journalists. "I work with important people to help them not think of themselves as important," she says. "Influential, yes. But not important."

She says right now there is an accelerated interest in astrology "even from my IRS auditor." Why now? "In myth, the public disgrace of the king heralds the necessary reinvention of the leadership," Casey says. This is "a huge, cyclical soul-searching time for the culture."

"Washington," she sums up, "is a spiritual hardship post."