civil religion

Searching for 'subtweets' in prayers offered during the Trump inauguration rites

While the Beltway establishment gathered on the U.S. Capitol's West side with legions of Middle Americans in "Make America Great Again" hats, the House of Representatives approved the final pre-inauguration details.

The quick session opened with a prayer by the chaplain, Father Patrick J. Conroy.

"God of the universe, we give you thanks for giving us another day. You are the father of us all, and your divine providence has led this nation in the past," he said, before offering prayers for "your servant, Donald Trump." The Jesuit prayed for the new president to "see things as you see things" and strive to hold "all of us to higher standards of equal justice, true goodness and peaceful union."

Conroy closed with a poignant prayer for the blunt and ever-controversial New York City billionaire: "We pray that he become his best self."

Add that to the file of January 20 prayers to analyze.

As always with inauguration ceremonies -- the high-church rites of American civil religion -- references to God were almost as common as those to the nation's new leader. This ceremony included six clergy offering their own chosen prayers and scriptures and was framed by private and public worship services.

Journalists and activists then read between the lines seeking messages aimed at Trump and his fans, as well as at God. The bottom line: In cyberspace, combatants now "subtweet" their adversaries, offering subtle criticisms behind their social-media backs. This inauguration offered plenty of opportunities for participants to engage in some theological subtweeting. The eyebrow-raising messages included:

For Southern Baptists, Mayberry is now officially dead

When the Rev. Russell Moore was a Baptist boy in Mississippi, he knew the culture around him had lots of unwritten rules.

Dogs didn't live in the house. Women didn't chew tobacco in public and men didn't chew at church or in funerals. Tattoos were forbidden and scary.

So he was scandalized one Sunday when a man came to church sporting a tattoo of a naked lady and propped his arm on the pew for all to see. To the young Moore's surprise, his grandmother whispered that this was good news -- because the man's wife had long been trying to get him into church.

Moore recalled his grandmother saying: "He's not trying to be rude, honey. He just doesn't know Jesus yet."

In a way, that's where Southern Baptists are right now, said Moore, in a pastors' conference sermon before the recent national Southern Baptist Convention in Columbus, Ohio. Baptists are struggling to relate to real people who live in a changing culture that frightens, or even angers, lots of church people.

"For a long time … in certain parts of this country, baptism was kind of a Bible Belt bar mitzvah," said Moore, who leads the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in Washington, D.C. "You needed a Christian identity, you needed a church identity, in order to make it as a good American, in order to be part of the culture around you. Those days are over."

Moore's words in recent weeks -- in pulpits and mass media -- have offered fresh evidence that some leaders of America's largest Protestant flock realize the cultural ground is shifting in America, including their once safe base in the South.

The fall and the strange rise of liberal religion

The most recent Jewish Community Study of New York held few surprises for those who have followed the sobering Jewish trends of recent decades. Yes, the 1.5 million or so Jews living in New York City and surrounding counties included a rising tide of people living in interfaith relationships and some had even begun calling themselves "partially Jewish." Participation in liberal Jewish congregations declined, again. Jews who said it was "very important" to affiliate with Jewish institutions fell to 44 percent.

But one number was genuinely startling -- that 74 percent of the region's Jewish children were found in the one-third of the Jewish households that identified as Orthodox.

No wonder leaders of the Reform movement and other liberal Jewish institutions have been asking sobering questions about theology, demographics and the future.

"The liberal approach to observance makes it impossible to set and maintain high expectations in terms of communal participation," argued Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan, in a much-debated broadside in The Forward. "Without an omnipotent God who can compel believers to practice a prescribed pattern of behavior, religious consumerism becomes the movement's dominant ethos. ...

"In the absence of a strong theological basis for making religious demands, the members lose interest and wander off."

There is, however, an ironic cultural reality hiding in all the negative trends that have been nagging liberal Judeo-Christian institutions, noted historian John Turner, who teaches religious studies at George Mason University.

This ironic wrinkle is easiest to see in the influential denominations scholars call the "seven sisters" of Protestantism. These churches, in descending order by size, are the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Recent Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life research found that, for the first time, America lacks a Protestant majority, with only 48 percent of the population claiming ties to Protestant denominations. This trend has affected a variety of churches, but the liberal mainline has been hit especially hard. Episcopal membership, for example, has fallen from 3.4 million in 1967 to 1.9 million in 2011. The United Church of Christ, President Barack Obama's denomination, has declined from more than 2 million members in 1962 to just over 1 million in 2011.

However, liberal religious groups "may have ultimately lost the battle for membership, but they won the larger cultural struggle," noted Turner, in an online First Things commentary. "Through their embrace of religious pluralism and more universal mystical religious experiences, liberal Protestants imperiled their own institutional strength but persuaded many Americans of the value of their ideas."

For example, liberal Protestants have -- backed by progressive elements in Catholicism and Judaism -- been victorious in their push to define religion's value in public life primarily in terms of social and economic justice, in contrast with more conservative groups that would stress both good works and evangelism.

Then there is religious liberalism's "much higher tolerance of pluralism," even on eternal issues tied to salvation, said Turner, in a telephone interview. Belief in "universalism" -- that all world religions lead to the same eternal ends -- remains "very divisive among evangelicals, but you would have to say that this belief has become the norm in Middle America."

Liberal religious leaders, he added, have been intensely committed to the "cultural prestige of science" in debates about life's big questions. They won that battle, too.

Religious liberals have also been much quicker to adapt to the looser moral standards of the Sexual Revolution, especially when changing ancient doctrines linked to hot-button topics such as sex outside of marriage, abortion and homosexuality.

"Actually, it's hard to know," said Turner, if mainline Protestants and other religious liberals "simply jumped on the bandwagon of the Sexual Revolution or if, in the end, they got run over by it."

The bottom line, he said, is that the religious left has the cultural momentum right now, even as its own institutions are wrestling with painful issues with demographics, membership totals and budgets.

However, stressed Turner, "it's hard to know what the future holds. ... I mean, Thomas Jefferson was absolutely sure that Unitarianism was the future of religion in America. That isn't how things turned out, at least not in terms of what's happened in America in the past."

God in the Gallup details

Decade after decade, the Gallup Organization reported some of the most familiar numbers in American religion. More than 90 percent of Americans said, "yes" when asked if they believe in God -- a number has changed little since the 1940s. Nearly 80 percent insisted they are "Christians," in some sense of that word. How many claimed to have attended a worship service in the previous week or so? That number hovered between 41 and 46 percent.

These are the kinds of numbers religious leaders love to quote when trying to intimidate politicians, educators, journalists and Hollywood producers.

Nevertheless, these poll numbers consistently failed to impress one significant authority -- George Gallup Jr.

"We revere the Bible, but don't read it," warned the famous pollster, in an address to the Evangelical Press Association. "We believe the Ten Commandments to be valid rules for living, although we can't name them. We believe in God, but this God is a totally affirming one, not a demanding one. He does not command our total allegiance. We have other gods before him."

The bottom line, he said, in an interview after that 1990 address, is that most American believers simply "want the fruits of religion, but not the obligations."

Gallup didn't enjoy punching holes in comforting statistics, in part because he sincerely believed that religious faith played a powerful, and for many decades overlooked, role in American life. This conviction was both professional and personal, since Gallup seriously considered becoming an Episcopal priest and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in religion at Princeton University before joining the family business.

Thus, while his father forever linked the Gallup name with political polling, George Gallup Jr. added a new goal for the firm's research -- probing the links between religious life and public life. Gallup retired in 2004 and died on Nov. 21 at the age of 81, after a one-year battle with cancer.

The key to Gallup's legacy is that he built on the basic religious questions his father and other researchers included in polls during the 1940s and '50s, said political scientist John C. Green of the University of Akron, who is known for his research into American politics and religious life. Instead of merely asking questions about religious affiliations, Gallup advocated a more systematic approach that focused attention on religious beliefs, attitudes and even behaviors.

"You got the sense that, however valuable those general numbers were in earlier polls, he was showing that you could experiment and try to find the realities inside all those numbers," said Green. The earlier Gallup numbers were "valuable because some of them went back so far into the mid-20th century. Then, George Gallup Jr. showed everyone that you could go beyond that general approach and dedicate entire surveys to religious questions."

By the end of his career, it was common to see a variety of researchers -- at the Pew Forum, LifeWay Research, the Barna Group and elsewhere -- focusing their work on highly specialized surveys targeting religious issues and trends. In 1977, Gallup himself helped found the Princeton Religion Research Center, in part to produce materials that would help clergy be more effective.

The basic problem, Gallup told me in 2004, is that far too many clergy "simply fail to take discipleship seriously. They assume that because people say they believe something, that this means they will live out those beliefs in daily life."

This shows up in the building blocks of faith, he added. Many clergy, for example, assume that people in their flocks understand simple Bible references. Many assume that people in their pews understand the truth claims of other religions. Many clergy are naive enough to believe that postmodern believers will -- without being challenged -- confess their sins and change the behaviors that cause havoc in their lives.

Far too many pastors, he lamented, seem afraid to ask tough questions.

"America is a churched nation, for the most part. Most Americans are either going to church or they used to go to church," said Gallup. "At some point we need to start focusing more attention on what is happening or not happening in those churches. ... Are our people learning the basics? Is their faith making a difference in their lives? Is their faith attractive to other people?

"These are the kinds of questions we must be willing to ask."

An archbishop faces ghost of JFK

In the beginning, there was candidate John F. Kennedy, who told an assembly of Protestant ministers not to worry about his Catholicism because, "I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair." In that influential 1960 address, Kennedy boldly proclaimed: "I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.

"Whatever issue may come before me as president -- on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject -- I will make my decision in accordance ... with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise."

And so it came to pass that -- politically speaking -- JFK begat the Kennedy dynasty, which begat Mario Cuomo, who begat Geraldine Ferraro, who begat Joseph Biden, who begat Rudy Giuliani, who begat John Kerry, who begat Arnold Schwarzenegger, who begat Nancy Pelosi and so forth and so on.

Looking back, it's clear that Kennedy's high-risk visit to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association changed Catholic political life. That's why one of America's most outspoken Catholic leaders recently seized an opportunity to deliver a very different message to another Protestant audience in Houston.

Kennedy's speech was "sincere, compelling, articulate -- and wrong," claimed Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, at a Houston Baptist University forum on faith and public life. "His Houston remarks profoundly undermined the place not just of Catholics, but of all religious believers, in America's public life and political conversation. Today, half a century later, we're paying for the damage."

The key, argued the archbishop, is that Kennedy did more than endorse the separation of church and state. He did more than plead for religious tolerance in the public square, after generations of tensions between Catholics and Protestants.

Ultimately, that Kennedy did was pledge to separate his faith from his personal conscience, thus building a high wall down the center of his own heart, mind and soul. How is it possible for Christians to do this, Chaput asked, when dealing with profoundly moral issues such as health care, immigration, abortion, poverty, education, religious liberty, family life, sexual identity and matters of war and peace?

"Real Christian faith is always personal," he said, "but it's never private."

Political and religious leaders have been debating the meaning of Kennedy's words ever since he spoke them. This was especially true during the 2008 presidential race when critics dissected the beliefs of several candidates who openly discussed their religious beliefs -- such as Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin and, of course, the future president, Barack Obama.

During a Fordham University forum on "The Kennedy Moment," political theorist William Galston of the Brookings Institution said that the key to the 1960 address was the candidate's bold insistence that his private spiritual views should not even be discussed because they "do not influence his views on public matters."

Kennedy also endorsed a "separation between democracy and God," noted Galston, former senior domestic policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. In fact, he used the word "God" only once, in a reference to the presidential oath of office.

This speech "could have been given by a nonbeliever. Indeed -- deep breath -- I rather suspect it was," said Galston. "At the very least, there is no indication that JFK regarded the church as having any rightful authority over his public conduct."

For Chaput, it's impossible to concede that the teachings of the Catholic faith should have nothing to do with the public lives, vocations and actions of individuals who continue to call themselves faithful Catholics.

Nevertheless, 50 years after Kennedy's speech in Houston "we have more Catholics in national public office than ever before. But I wonder if we've ever had fewer of them who can coherently explain how their faith informs their work or who even feel obligated to try," said the archbishop.

"At least one of the reasons for it is this: Too many Catholics confuse their personal opinions with a real Christian conscience. Too many live their faith as if it were a private idiosyncrasy, the kind that they'll never allow to become a public nuisance. And too many just don't really believe. Maybe it's different in Protestant circles. But I hope you'll forgive me if I say, 'I doubt it.' "

Prayers in a minefield (civil religion II)

Phyllis Tickle tried to pay close attention to the prayers at the inauguration of President Barack Obama, which isn't surprising since she has written a whole shelf of books on rites of public and private prayer. The problem was that she didn't hear much in the way of traditional prayer, in terms of clergy offering words of praise and petition to God. Instead, the prayers sounded like lectures or mini-sermons aimed at the masses on the National Mall.

"Did I think the official prayers were disasters? No," said Tickle, author of, among many relevant works, "Prayer Is a Place: America's Religious Landscape Observed."

"I just thought that they lacked the majesty of a psalm before the throne of God, substituting instead ... the mundane and plebian commentary of a human being to other human beings about an established lists of errors and of desirable aims, with a little advice to God thrown in. ... I'm not sure why preachers think they have to do that."

The clergy in the rites surrounding the inauguration, of course, faced the challenge of praying in a political minefield. On one side were the atheists and secularists whose lawsuits failed to keep religious language out of the proceedings. On the other side were religious activists -- liberals and conservatives -- poised to judge whether the prayers made the grade, politically and doctrinally.

Pity the poor shepherd who has to please his own flock, as well as the New York Times editorial page.

Most of the early analysis focused on the decision to invite the Rev. Rick Warren -- an evangelical leader who rejects Obama's support for abortion and gay rights -- to offer the invocation. Warren opened by blending a theme from his own bestseller, "The Purpose Driven Life," with snippets of Jewish and Muslim prayers.

"Almighty God, our Father, everything we see and everything we can't see exists because of you alone. It all comes from you. It all belongs to you. It all exists for your glory. History is your story," he said. "Scripture tells us, 'Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God. The Lord is One.' And you are the compassionate and merciful one. And you are loving to everyone you have made."

The prayer also included words of thanksgiving for the election of an African-American president, an appeal for economic justice and concern for the environment. The California megachurch pastor then dared to close with clear references to Jesus -- in Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish and English -- and the Lord's Prayer.

The benediction was by the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, a strong voice from the Civil Rights Movement. He began with the poetic final lines of the "Negro National Anthem," the classic "Lift Every Voice and Sing," and then ended with an edgy poem based on the work of blues singer Big Bill Broonzy.

"Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning," he concluded, "we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right. Let all those who do justice and love mercy say, 'Amen.' "

In between, Lowery offered sharp shots of political commentary, including a pronouncement that America has recently "sown the seeds of greed," blown by the "wind of greed and corruption" that have caused the nation to "reap the whirlwind of social and economic disruption." Thus, he asked God to "help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance."

None of this, stressed Tickle, was all that unusual. Prayers written for use in these kinds of giant civic events are almost always "rather didactic" and "content driven." As a rule, they also tend to be long.

On this historic inauguration day, anyone seeking the most fervent expressions of faith, hope and love needed to hear the voices in the crowd, not the leaders in the pulpit.

"The real prayers were written by the people on that mall and across the nation, with their bodies, with their voices, with their cries and with their tears," said Tickle. "That was the religious experience that really mattered on that day."

Our political high holy day, part I

EDITOR'S NOTE: First of two columns on President Barack Obama's inauguration. As Aretha Franklin finished singing "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," the queen of soul did what she has done for decades -- she improvised.

The result was a soaring bridge between the inauguration of President Barack Obama and a sermon 45 years ago at the Lincoln Memorial.

"Our fathers' God, to thee, author of liberty, to thee we sing. Long may our land be bright, with freedom's holy light, protect us by thy might," sang Franklin, before adding words that echoed some of the final cadences the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., added to his "I Have A Dream" address.

"Let freedom ring ... From the red clay of Georgia, all the way to the Allegheny Mountains. ... Let freedom ring."

If anyone ever doubted that themes from the Civil Rights Movement have been blended into America's "civil religion," it's time for those doubts to fade.

Presidential inaugurations are the "high feast days" of the vague, but powerful, faith that binds together a nation of many races and creeds. To no one's surprise, religion played a major role in the rites for Obama, said Darrin M. Hanson, a political scientist at Xavier University of Louisiana.

"Obama has a preacher's emotional style of speaking and he uses that to bring people together. It's a skill he will need in the days ahead," said Hanson, who will be analyzing the 2009 address as part of his research into the role that presidents play in America's civil religion.

In this speech, Hanson said, Obama wanted to deliver a few sobering, "prophetic" messages as well as offer "priestly" words to encourage the million-plus people on the National Mall and the millions more watching from coast to coast and worldwide.

Thus, the new president told his listeners: "Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age."

Obama then used religious images -- aimed at left and right -- to describe bitter divisions in the body politic.

"On this day," he said, "we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things."

When scholars describe "civil religion," they discuss words and rituals that try to accomplish four major goals, argued Hanson, in an essay entitled "The High Priest of American Civil Religion: Continuity and Change."

First, American "civil religion" attempts to promote unity while accepting religious pluralism. Second, this faith must remain separate from both the state and any specific religion, he said. However, if it ever favors a particular creed, it does so in defense of fundamental human rights. Finally, this "civil religion" provides unity by appealing to shared values and beliefs, acted out in common rites that are acceptable to most believers.

In one passage, the new president managed to combine a number of "civil religion" themes, while also evoking deep emotions at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement and his own personal pilgrimage.

"This is the source of our confidence -- the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny," said Obama. "This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed, why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall. And why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."

The key, said Hanson, is that Obama managed to hit a few hard topics -- from global terror to an economic recession -- while emphasizing words of hope.

"If you are trying to bring people together, you can't be too specific when you talk about the things that drive people apart," he said. "Inaugural addresses, and I've read them all, are supposed to be vague -- but inspiring. …

"In the end, it's easier to be a priestly and successful president than it is to be a prophetic and successful president. It's hard to tell people, 'We have really messed up and all of us are going to have to change.' "

NEXT: The politics of prayer, in two dramatic acts.

On the count of three -- pray

At the first inauguration of George W. Bush as president, the Rev. Franklin Graham raised eyebrows by using an edgy word in his prayer.

"May this be the beginning of a new dawn for America as we humble ourselves before you and acknowledge you alone as our Lord, our Savior and our Redeemer," said Graham, the fiery son of evangelist Billy Graham. "We pray this in the name of the Father, and of the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."

Four years later, the word showed up again.

"Now, unto You, O God, the One who always has been and always will be, the one King of kings and the true power broker, we glorify and honor You," said the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell of Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston. "Respecting persons of all faiths, I humbly submit this prayer in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen."

Scholars who keep watch over the rites of American civil religion took note of the firestorms caused by these prayers. Clearly, it was becoming dangerous to use the J-word -- the name of Jesus -- in the public square.

But it's old hat for Republicans to use explicit God-talk. This year, Sen. Barack Obama and his team went out of the way to invite progressive and even mainstream Evangelicals to the Democratic National Convention -- including taking a turn at the podium. This was cutting-edge prayer in an age of theological tolerance.

One lesser-known voice backed out at the last moment -- Cameron Strang, the 32-year-old editor of Relevant Magazine and son of publishing magnate Steven Strang of Charisma magazine. Nevertheless, Strang the younger was willing to arrange for a rising star to take his place -- Donald Miller, author of the spiritual memoir "Blue Like Jazz."

Miller ended his prayer with a call for unity within diversity, but also found a way to say "Jesus" without causing trouble.

"God we know that you are good. Thank you for blessing us in so many ways as Americans," said Miller. "I make these requests in the name of your son, Jesus, who gave his own life against the forces of injustice. ... Amen."

The key was that Miller stressed the word "I," making sure that his listeners knew he was claiming this was his own prayer -- not asking them to share his embrace of the second person of the Christian Trinity.

Still, when it comes to church-state strategy, the most groundbreaking prayer was offered by the Rev. Joel Hunter of the giant Northland Church near Orlando -- especially since his benediction ended the mile-high rally that included Obama's acceptance speech.

A self-identified "pro-life Republican," the preacher offered a conventional prayer that included appeals on behalf of infants, children, the poor, the persecuted and those who are enslaved, as well as for peace and for the environment. Then, at the end, Hunter paused to interject a unique "closing instruction."

"I want to personalize this," he said. "I want this to be a participatory prayer. And so therefore, because we are in a country that is still welcoming all faiths, I would like all of us to close this prayer in the way your faith tradition would close your prayer. So on the count of three, I want all of you to end this prayer, your prayer, the way you usually end prayer. You ready? One, two, three."

Hunter, on his own behalf, spoke into the microphone: "In Jesus' name, Amen." Meanwhile, 80,000 or so other people were free to name their own God or gods.

After fielding questions about his actions, the pastor stressed that it would be "taking the Lord's name in vain" if he created confusion in such a setting. The goal was ensure that participants did not believe they were being asked to accept a prayer that forced them to "compromise their core beliefs."

Thus, "I did not ask people to pray to another god; I asked them to finish a prayer according to their faith tradition," argued Hunter, on his church's website. "This may be a small point linguistically, but it is a huge point theologically. ...

"As you may imagine, I prayed long and hard before feeling like God had given me the precise words for this prayer. I believe that He in His sovereign way will use it to bring people to Himself."

Soaring candidates in '08

If Mike Huckabee has said it once, he has said it a thousand times during his bid to reach the White House.

"I have a great respect for Barack Obama," noted Huckabee, during a "Tonight Show" visit. "I think he's a person who is trying to do in many ways what I hope I'm trying to do and that is to say, 'Let's quit what I call horizontal politics.'

"Everything in this country is not left, right, liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican. I think the country is looking for somebody who is vertical, who is thinking, 'Let's take America up and not down.' "

This is how the Southern Baptist pastor tweaked his "vertical" credo on "Meet the Press," facing journalist Tim Russert: "There has been a huge cultural shift in this country, Tim. And I think that's why many Americans are seeking leadership that has a positive and optimistic spirit. ... I think the American people are hungry for vertical politics, where we have leaders who lift us up rather than those who tear us down."

The former Arkansas governor has used the word "vertical" so many times that enquiring politicos want to know: What's "up" with this guy? Some worry that, as critic Josh Marshall put it, Huckabee is sending a "clever dog whistle call out to Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals that his politics are God?s politics."

This kind of uplifting, vaguely spiritual language may make some people uncomfortable, but there is nothing unusual about it, according to former White House insider Michael Gerson, the evangelical scribe who helped craft the early speeches of President George W. Bush.

"Making use of these kinds of non-sectarian religious references is, itself, the great tradition of American political speechmaking," said Gerson, who is now a Washington Post opinion columnist. "As a speechwriter, when I hear this kind of language it tells me that someone is trying to describe a politics of idealism and aspiration. It's a kind of bringing-America-together language and there is certainly nothing new about political leaders trying to do that."

In fact, there is another candidate in the race who has been using large doses of religious imagery. As Huckabee has noted, Sen. Barack Obama has created some non-horizontal language of his own during his quest to find a truly "post-partisan" politics.

"We are up against the conventional thinking that says your ability to lead as president comes from longevity in Washington or proximity to the White House," said Obama, after his primary victory in South Carolina. "But we know that real leadership is about candor, and judgment, and the ability to rally Americans from all walks of life around a common purpose -- a higher purpose. ? This election is our chance to give the American people a reason to believe again."

Clearly, Gerson noted, Obama feels comfortable talking about his Christian faith as he discusses his own political goals and beliefs.

It's hard to fake this. Obama feels comfortable enough to use biblical images in a wide variety of settings, whether he is making a high-profile speech or chatting with voters after Sunday services.

"I don't believe, in his case, that this is someone who is unfamiliar with religious language, but trying to adapt it all of a sudden for political reasons," said Gerson.

This is also true for Bill Clinton, a Southern Baptist who uses his deep knowledge of Bible Belt language as a way to connect with conservative believers -- especially African-Americans -- as well as with religious and political progressives. And Hillary Clinton is very comfortable talking about her United Methodist faith, noted Gerson. However, her "sincere liberal mainline Protestant beliefs" may not connect with as many people who worship in other pews.

Meanwhile, Obama and Huckabee will continue trying to find faith-based words that unite, rather than divide.

When it comes to language, "they are the soaring candidates," said Gerson. "They are trying to claim the higher ground that says they are above the vicious partisanship of the whole Clinton-Bush era."

They are not the first to blaze this trail. As an articulate idealist once put it: "I suggest to you there is no left or right, only an up or down."

That was Ronald Reagan, in the 1964 speech that launched him into national politics. He went on to win his share of votes in church pews.