THE DAY AFTER THE 1984 REPUBLICAN convention, Ronald Reagan gave a speech to a group of preachers in Dallas in which he ruminated on the role of religion in public life. "The truth is," Reagan said, "that politics and morality are inseparable. . . . Our government needs the church because only those humble enough to admit they are sinners can bring to democracy the tolerance it requires in order to survive."

Reagan's remarks were considered wildly controversial. "President Reagan today challenged the constitutional separation of church and state," began one of the first wire stories written about the speech. Within hours his political enemies pounced. Challenger Walter Mondale accused Reagan and other members of the "extreme fringe" of engaging in "moral McCarthyism" and of seeking to create a theocracy. Time magazine agreed. "On every major issue," Time concluded, Reagan has "shown a willingness to use government authority to impose sectarian views on the population at large."

The White House recoiled in horror. Under pressure from his advisers, notably James Baker, Reagan all but apologized for getting theological in public. "I was only talking about it because I was speaking at a prayer breakfast," the president told reporters. His next major address on religion, given at a B'nai B'rith convention in Washington a few weeks later, was mostly about the glories of religious pluralism and the "wall in our Constitution separating church and state."

The Dallas speech solidified Reagan's reputation among liberals as a fundamentalist nut, but in retrospect his musings on religion are notable for what they didn't contain. For all his references to God, Reagan didn't elaborate on his personal faith. He didn't describe mandates he had received from on high. He didn't refer to his prayer life or detail his conversion experience. (Nor, in fact, did Reagan go to church very often.) Probably not one American in a hundred remembers, or ever knew, that he is a Presbyterian. To this day, it's not clear what, exactly, Reagan believes about God.

There are few such mysteries left in American politics. Voters now know the spiritual biographies of most of the leading candidates in the 2000 presidential race. They know that Elizabeth Dole began her "total commitment to Christ" while attending a Capitol Hill Bible study. They know that George W. Bush found God after a walk on the beach with Billy Graham. They know that John Kasich turned to a higher power when his parents were killed in a car accident. Just the other day they learned that Al Gore uses his faith to answer "any important question" he faces in life. Voters know a lot more about the religious beliefs of these would-be presidents than they knew about Reagan's. Is it an improvement?

Almost everyone agrees that for some candidates it's a necessity. Polls show that after two Clinton terms, "character" questions will matter far more in the 2000 presidential election than they did in the previous two. Professing religious faith is a quick and effective way for a candidate to establish his bona fides as a decent person. It's also a handy way for Republicans with wobbly stands on abortion and gay rights to mollify social conservatives. (Significantly, the candidates with the strongest positions on issues that religious conservatives care about -- Gary Bauer, Alan Keyes, Pat Buchanan, and Steve Forbes -- almost never talk about their own religious experiences.)

For Al Gore, talking about God is a means to distance himself from his boss -- shorthand, as A. N. Wilson put it in the New York Times, for: "Tipper and I, despite having spent the last seven years in the Clinton Administration, entirely sympathize with those of you who think the White House is morally challenged." Gore began the process in May when he gave a speech in Atlanta in which he endorsed steering federal funds to faith-based social service organizations, an idea that until that point had been promoted almost exclusively by conservatives. The speech received relatively little attention in the press, but the Republicans who read it were shocked. "This is something that would have been outrageous for a Democratic candidate to say a few years ago," says Jeff Bell, a longtime political strategist who is now advising the Bauer campaign. "It would have been unimaginable for Michael Dukakis to have said something like that."

Several days later, Gore invited a group of religion reporters to the White House and proceeded to say something else previously unimaginable for many Democrats. "The purpose of life is to glorify God," Gore explained during a briefing on his spirituality. "My own faith is rooted in the unshakable belief in God as creator and sustainer, a deeply personal interpretation of, and relationship with, Christ."

Gore's testimony was met with some skepticism. "As with everything Gore does, this seems calculated," wrote one reporter who witnessed it. But that doesn't mean it won't work. Both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton received significant support from church-goers after using religious language in their first campaigns. Which is not surprising. On a political level, religious voters aren't that different from an ethnic group. A politician who wants to woo Italian voters marches in the Columbus Day parade. A candidate who wants to reach evangelicals talks about his conversion experience.

In fact, says Michael Cromartie, director of the Evangelical Studies Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, some Christian voters are likely to reflexively vote for one of their own. "In 1988," says Cromartie, "someone I knew called and asked me if I was supporting Pat Robertson for president. I said I wasn't and he said, 'But he's a Christian brother.' I said, 'So what? He's a nut case.' For evangelicals, personal piety often covers a variety of political sins."

Not to mention theological ones, since what passes for Bible thumping in the political world rarely bears much resemblance to what most evangelicals hear in church on Sunday. "I believe that all people, young and old, but especially the young, need to hear that religion is not about judgment," John Kasich informed the Columbus Urban League during a speech in May. "Religion is not a finger coming out of the sky telling us where we have fallen short. Religion is about the values handed down from God that teach us about our potential as human beings to get it right."

Though he used the G-word, Kasich's mini-sermon was closer to self-help than Christianity, more Deepak Chopra than Jerry Falwell. Religion -- at least the major varieties practiced in the United States -- is to a large extent "about" judgement. It is not primarily "about our potential as human beings." Not that any ambitious politician would dare tell an audience of baby boomers that.

Suspect theology or not, many evangelicals are happy to see God mentioned at all in politics. "I welcome reminders from all sorts of candidates that there's an objective reality," says Marvin Olasky, a journalism professor at the University of Texas whose writings on faith-based welfare reform have influenced George W. Bush. The key to judging an ostensibly religious politician's sincerity, Olasky says, is in his works. If a candidate genuinely believes in God, he'll vote as if he does, looking to prayer and the Bible for guidance as he makes decisions about policy. Otherwise, Olasky says, it's probably phony. "Professions of faith without any evidence of adherence to biblical principles are suspicious."

On the other hand, professing adherence to biblical principles is politically dangerous. No mainstream candidate wants to come off as a Jesus freak, not even Elizabeth Dole, who is. Dole spent a good part of the '80s and '90s giving speeches about "the difference Jesus Christ has made in my life"; even now, on the campaign trail, she sets aside 30 minutes a day to read the Bible. There is no question that when she talks about her belief in God, she means it. Religious faith, says her spokesman Ari Fleischer, "is who she is, that's a major part of her soul, that's a major part of her strength. Her faith affects every ounce of her being."

But according to Fleischer, it doesn't affect every part of her political platform. "I don't know that I could say that there's any particular public policy issue that's faith based for Elizabeth Dole," he says. "I think it's much more values based, and her values are driven in good part by her faith. It's a complicated mix, as it should be for a person of religion."

Too complicated, certainly, for the average voter to figure out. And that's probably the point. Like everybody else talking God these days, Dole seeks to appear religious enough to comfort voters, but not so devout that she scares them -- a decent person, but not someone who's going to speak in tongues or get boorish about unborn babies. It's a tough balance to strike, maybe impossible. Which may explain why presidential candidates didn't used to talk about religion.

Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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