It wasn't easy being the token evangelical in the Howard Dean office during the 2004 White House race.
Other staffers called Mara Vanderslice the "church lady" and reminded her that the loudest cheers at Dean rallies followed attacks on the Religious Right. But what really stung were her candidate's answers to religious questions.
Round one: Dean confessed that he left the Episcopal Church when his parish blocked the construction of a bike path. Round two: He names the Book of Job as his favorite New Testament book. Round three: Asked about his plans to woo religious believers, Dean said he was waiting until the campaign hit the Deep South.
Ouch. That was business as usual until the "values voters" carried President George W. Bush back into office, said author Dan Gilgoff, who dissected the trials of Vanderslice in "The Jesus Machine," his book on James Dobson and the Christian right. That election shook the Democrats and helped them realize that they needed some candidates who were not afraid of faith.
Meet dyed-in-the-wool United Methodist Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who openly testifies about making his profession of faith at a United Church of Christ altar. God talk is back, for the Democrats, while key Republicans face unique faith challenges.
"Part of it is the candidates in the field this time," said Gilgoff, politics editor at the Beliefnet.com website. "In particular, with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton you have two people who have been very vocal about their faith and don't mind talking about it. For Democrats, you could say this was just the luck of the draw."
Meanwhile, in the Republican pews, Rudy Giuliani has a troubled Catholic past, Mitt Romney is struggling to answer Mormon questions and various GOP kingmakers -- sacred and secular -- have questions about Fred Thompson, John McCain and the Rev. Mike Huckabee. The Republicans are trying to preach to a powerful, but troubled, choir.
Everyone knows the stakes are high. Voters who reported attending services more than once a week supported Bush over John Kerry by a margin of 64 to 35 percent and, for those attending once a week, the gap was 58 to 41 percent. Americans who never attended services backed Kerry, 62 to 36 percent.
It's hard for outsiders to follow all of this, which is why Gilgoff and editors at Beliefnet.com and Time have created a digital guide for politicos who want to follow this contest to win the hearts of religious voters. The result is the "God-o-Meter" (blog.beliefnet.com/godometer), which, according to its creators, is pronounced "Gah-DOM-meter." If readers click on the head of a Democratic or Republican candidate, the site delivers his or her ranking on a 10-point scale between "secularist" and "theocrat."
"Our definition of 'secularist' is someone who sees no role for religion in public life and policy," said Gilgoff. "The 'theocratic' position is pretty much the opposite of that."
But there's a theological twist here. The "God-o-Meter" applies this "theocrat" label to liberals who want to see their religious convictions shape public policy (think global warning and health care) to the same degree that it does to conservatives (think abortion and the redefinition of marriage). Thus, at mid-week, theocrat Clinton had a seven rating, the same as Giuliani, and Obama's rating had soared to nine. Romney, meanwhile, was edging close to "secularist" territory, with a five rating.
The key is that the "God-o-Meter" tracks 20 criteria drawn from campaign tactics, such as whether a candidate "frames issues in religious or spiritual terms," "delivers a speech ... in an overtly religious setting" or openly "discusses his/her personal faith and how it would influence his/her presidency." A candidate would lose points, for example, by making "a remark offensive to an important religious constituency" or by declining to "discuss his/her personal faith life when asked, e.g. by a debate moderator."
Right now, words and symbolic actions are enough.
"There is going to be a test later, in terms of whether the Democrats are willing to compromise on any of the hot social issues in terms of actual laws and policy positions," said Gilgoff. "But all of that is a long way down the road. Right now, the Democrats simply have to find a way to start talking to the evangelicals and listening to what they have to say. ... What do they have to lose?"