John F. Kerry, a lifelong Roman Catholic, carries in his briefcase an unmarked manila folder stuffed full of religion articles, scriptures, personal reflections -- and a sermon the Democrat has been fine-tuning since the early 1980s.
In the latest iteration Kerry borrows the words of James, reputed brother of Jesus, to condemn President Bush's leadership. "It is not enough, my brother, to say that you have faith, when there are no deeds," Kerry told thousands of African American Christians gathered in Indianapolis earlier this month for the annual convention of the AME Church. "We look at what's happening in America today, and if you have a conscience and if your eyes are open, you have to say, 'Where are the deeds?' For the last four years, all we have heard is empty words."
The speech, based in part on James's New Testament teachings on Christian social responsibility of nearly 2,000 years ago, was revealing, overtly religious in tone -- and one of the rare times Kerry has expounded at any length about his views on faith during this campaign.
Outside of black churches or meetings with African Americans such as those at the NAACP convention yesterday, Kerry has been largely silent about the personal Catholicism that once inspired a flirtation with the priesthood and the Christian beliefs friends and family say guide his life and political thinking.
Kerry has on occasion touched on the complications of running as the first Catholic since John F. Kennedy in 1960 to win the party's nomination. While Kennedy found himself vowing that he would not be controlled by the pope, Kerry has had to explain his differences with the church on the issues of abortion and gay rights.
"There are many things that are of concern and taught by the church with respect to war, with respect to the environment, with respect to poor people, our responsibilities to each other, and I am very comfortable with where I am with respect to those," Kerry told reporters one month ago in Kentucky. "But I am not a spokesperson for the church, and the church is not a spokesperson for the United States of America."
Kerry's reticence on his faith offers a stark contrast to President Bush, who openly talks about being a born-again Christian, and could prove troublesome for the Democratic nominee in the front-and-center political fight over values, according to several Democrats and political analysts.
In a nation in which most Americans consider themselves religious and many say they desire a candidate of faith, a recent Time magazine poll found that only 7 percent of voters described Kerry as a "man of strong religious faith." Numerous other polls, including ones conducted by Kerry allies, show Americans who attend church regularly are flocking to the president as they did in 2000.
"If you listen to Bush and Kerry talk, you would be excused for thinking Bush is an incredibly religious man and Kerry is not [religious] at all," said Amy Sullivan, a former aide to Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and one of a growing number of Democrats pressuring party leaders to talk more about religious faith. If Kerry confines his sermon to black churches, "that's a huge problem," she added.
Writing in a recent issue of Democratic Leadership Council's official publication, the Blueprint, Sullivan said speaking about faith to minorities alone is "not only a condescending strategy, but a foolish one."
John D. Podesta, a chief of staff to President Bill Clinton who started an organization to prod party leaders into the religion debate, said in a recent interview: "Part of the Republican attacks will be . . . that he's at some level anti-religious. A critical element for Kerry is to repel those attacks. They have to put him in settings where that deep sense of religious-based morality can shine through."
Kerry has rebuffed pressure from Democrats inside and outside his campaign to talk more openly about religion, aides say, other than making the word "faith" part of the values message he is offering to voters on the campaign trail. He has turned down numerous interview requests on the topic, including several for this article. Aides said Kerry's resistance to talking about faith and personal beliefs is a relatively common trait among Catholic and Protestant politicians reared in the reserved New England tradition.
"I grew up in the same background as a Roman Catholic in New England, and we all have a tradition . . . where faith is practiced inside your religion and it's more of a private matter," said Tad Devine, a top Kerry strategist.
With the Catholic vote up for grabs, Kerry is also not interested in picking a public fight with bishops and other Catholics in key states such as Missouri by belaboring their differences over church doctrine. The Roman Catholic Church is opposed to abortion and any sexual activity outside marriage, and a few bishops want to deny the sacrament of Holy Communion to Kerry and other politicians who cross the church on these controversial social issues.
Kerry has said he believes life begins at conception but opposes federal restriction on a woman's right to have an abortion. He recently said he disagrees with Catholic doctrine that homosexual activity is a sin.
Aides describe Kerry as a religious man -- a former altar boy who was reared by a devoutly Catholic mother and is married to a similarly devout Catholic woman, Teresa Heinz Kerry. The two often attend Sunday Mass and receive Communion.
On the road, Kerry carries a rosary, a prayer book and a medal with the image of St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers, which he wore during the Vietnam War, according to a longtime associate who demanded anonymity to discuss an issue the candidate did not want to discuss. Kerry prays, sometimes with friends, including in 1999 when he helped former Vietnam crewmate Del Sandusky through hard times, the associate said.
Kerry "openly shares his values and his beliefs with Americans, but he does so always remembering that religion is personal, not a political prop," Kerry spokesman David Wade said.
In his Indianapolis speech to members of the AME Church, Kerry talked about his belief that faith mandates personal responsibility and that politicians honor God by helping others through government policies such as providing health care coverage and lower education costs. "I am running for president because it's time to turn the words into deeds and faith into action," Kerry said. "Scriptures tells us there is a time to break down and a time to build up. This is our time to break down divisions and build up unity."
Bush, one of the most overtly religious presidents of modern time, has made his faith a central theme of his reelection campaign. The president speaks often in spiritual terms drawn from the New Testament and spends considerable time and money wooing white evangelical Christians in the South and Midwest.
A study by Democratic pollsters Stan Greenberg and Matt Hogan shows the Bush strategy is working with key demographic groups. In a memo this week, the two said Bush is gaining support among white devout evangelicals, blue-collar women older than 50 and white Catholics who attend church every week. Kerry, they said, is offsetting the Bush surge by picking up similar support from non-practicing evangelicals, some of whom are turned off by Bush's emphasis on faith.
"There is no question Americans are very religious people -- faith in God matters in the life of most Americans," Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) said. "It factors into the way some people reach a judgment of who a candidate is."
Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards, who was baptized a Southern Baptist at 16 but later joined the Methodist Church, feels more comfortable talking about faith and is likely to raise the issue more frequently than Kerry, campaign aides said. In an interview late last year, Edwards said, "If you are person of faith, I think it adds weight to that issue of whether you are a good person."
Kerry may be slowly coming to the view that religion must play a larger role in his campaign outside of black churches, some advisers said. "Now you have got to the point in the campaign where . . . it's important to reveal motivations," Devine said, adding that religion is a "natural motivation" for Kerry.
Kerry has connected his faith to his military service, which he suggested reflects a desire to please God. "Several months ago, President Clinton quoted the Prophet Isaiah in support of my candidacy: 'Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying Whom shall I send. And who will go for us. And I said, 'Here I am. Send me.' President Clinton paid me the compliment of telling that audience whenever there was a call to service in war or in peace, I have always answered that call," Kerry said in the Indianapolis speech.
Some advisers want the nominee want to do more of this, and have suggested he dedicate a speech to the role of faith in dictating his values, perhaps at an evangelical school or seminary. But Stephanie Cutter, Kerry's communications director, said there are no plans for the candidate to deliver such a speech.
Researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.