At their third and last campaign debate, both President Bush and Senator John Kerry spoke at length about the importance of faith in their daily lives, and its influence on the decisions they make. In a country where freedom of religion is a constitutional right, the Republican and Democratic Party presidential candidates are talking in personal terms about their beliefs and the power of prayer.
John Kerry is a Roman Catholic. George W. Bush describes himself as a born again Christian. They hold different views on many issues. But there is one thing they agree on: the importance of faith.
"I grew up a Catholic. I was an alter boy. I know that throughout my life, this has made a difference to me," Mr. Kerry said.
"Prayer and religion sustain me, said President Bush. "I - I've received calmness in the storms of the presidency."
At their final debate, two rounds of questioning dealt with matters of faith and religion. That is more time than was spent discussing such controversial domestic issues as gun control, immigration, and raising the base wage set by government for American workers.
Political scientist Karlyn Bowman was not surprised. "I think religion has always been an important part of our politics and our country's identity," he said. "And I think it remains so today."
Ms. Bowman analyzes political trends and public opinion polls for the American Enterprise Institute, a private policy research group. "I think the numbers are pretty consistent," he said. "People feel comfortable with a president who is religious, who is a man of deep faith. I think what has changed in our politics and this has been a very important change over time, several researchers, political scientists and sociologists and others used to look at denomination. It used to tell you a lot about how the electorate was going to vote on Election Day. But today what they look at is degree of religiosity."
In short, she says, people are looking for a candidate who has a strong moral core, the kind of person who will make good decisions based on ethical principles. Leonard Steinhorn, a professor at the American University in Washington, D.C., says many voters believe comments about faith offer valuable clues.
"Religious values become a code for learning about a person's character, learning what makes them tick," he said. "I don't think it is the only way to learn about it. But certainly, religion becomes a code, an easy way for people to sort of sense is this person centered, does this person have good values."
Clearly, the nation has come a long way since 1960, when John Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic to run for president. Critics wondered back then if church teachings would determine his decision making.
This time, several key Church leaders are opposing John Kerry because he supports legalized abortion.
Mr. Kerry addressed the matter during the debate. "I respect their views. I completely respect their views. I am a Catholic and I grew up learning how to respect those views," he said. "But I disagree with them, as do many. I believe that I can't legislate or transfer to another American citizen my article of faith."
Roman Catholics form a big voting bloc in the United States, and George W. Bush with his strong anti-abortion stand is actually closer to the views of the church hierarchy. But there is diversity among the ranks of American Catholics, as there is among the public in general. And both candidates stressed respect for individual beliefs is important.
The president talked not about Christianity per se, but about the basic teachings that form the core of all religions. "I never want to impose my religion on anybody else. But when I make decisions, I stand on principle. And the principles are derived from who I am," he said.
Senator Kerry carried on the theme. "I went to a church school, and I was taught that the two greatest commandments are "Love the Lord, your God, with all your mind, your body, and your soul," and, "Love your neighbor as yourself," he said.
Leonard Steinhorn says the comments made by the two candidates fit the times. "I think they talked about it appropriately. It is not anybody's business to impose their religious views on anybody else in a plural society," he said. "Otherwise we would end up with the type of society that we say we don't want to be that exist in too many parts of the world that make us uncomfortable."
It might seem plausible to link the interest in faith and religion to the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. But political analysts and historians doubt that is the case. They say Americans have always comprised a religious society, and while we may talk about it more these days, faith in the broadest most encompassing sense, has always been a part of life in the United States.