While the question of religion is not new to American politics, both Democratic and Republican hopefuls in the U.S. presidential race are talking more frequently about their faith, especially after a recent evangelical Christian threat to back a third party candidate if Republican frontrunner Rudolph Giuliani becomes the party's presidential nominee.

Evangelical Christian Republicans are one of the largest and most influential groups in the United States, comprising as much as one-fifth of the electorate. While they solidly backed President George Bush in the 2004 presidential election, many observers say that in the run-up to next year's elections, this constituency is divided over the Republican field of presidential candidates. Most analysts say that especially holds true for former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who supports abortion rights, and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, whose Mormon faith and views on abortion make most evangelicals uneasy.

For political scientist Allen Hertzke, Director of Religious Studies at the University of Oklahoma, this interplay of faith and politics could change the 2008 electoral scene. "On the Republican side, there's been an effort at least by some conservative Christian leaders to derail Rudolph Giuliani's nomination. So that's one of the dynamics. The other one is the fact that there is a Mormon running for president," says Hertzke. "In the evangelical Christian world, Mormonism is not true Christianity. And if Mitt Romney becomes a frontrunner, that would become a significant factor for some evangelical voters."

Hertzke argues that the same religious dynamic is important to the Democrats running for the White House. In the 2004 presidential election, exit polls showed that only 21 percent of evangelical Republicans voted for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. And in 2006, only 27 percent voted for Democratic congressional contenders, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Steven Waldman, Editor of Beliefnet, a leading religion Internet website, says this is why Democrats are aggressively courting religious voters this year.

"Democrats are talking about their faith lives much more than they ever have before. [Senators] Barak Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards in particular, all have gone to great lengths [to talk] about their faith and the importance of God in their lives, their favorite Bible passages, how [faith] influences their policies. And they're trying to become more faith-friendly and to dispel the image that the Democratic Party is sort of a secularist party and not welcoming to people of faith," says Waldman.

The Catholic Factor 

The Democrats lost more than just evangelical Protestant votes in the last presidential and legislative elections. They failed to win over America's diverse Catholics, says the University of Oklahoma's Allen Hertzke. The Catholic vote, Hertzke explains, often oscillates between Democrats and Republicans - - helping to elect Bill Clinton in the 1990s and George Bush in 2004.

"Catholics are one-quarter of the electorate. They are the quintessential swing voters. How the Catholic vote goes often mirrors how the national percentages shake out. And this year, it's quite possible that Catholics will move into the Democratic camp because of their concerns about inequality, economic justice, the war [in Iraq], the environment," says Hertzke. "And the reason why they are a swing vote is that some of them are strong Republicans and some are strong Democrats. But then, a significant number of them are independent voters who vote depending on the salience of the issue and the quality of the candidates. So it swings back and forth." 

Most analysts say the shift is largely due to the religious, social, political and ethnic divisions within the Catholic community. Hispanic Catholics, in particular, have become increasingly influential political players in recent years, according to Timothy Matovina, Director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame.

"Latinos, although they tend to vote more Democrat than Republican, traditionally are more aligned with the family values concerns of the Republican Party and the social concerns of the Democratic Party. And, of course, immigration is a very big issue for them right now. And there, it's not clear exactly how the Latino vote will divide out in the next election," says Matovina. 

Other Faiths

While Catholics and evangelical Protestants form the largest religious voting blocs, many analysts say Democratic and Republican candidates must also appeal to Muslim, Jewish and mainline Protestant voters. The University of Oklahoma's Allen Hertzke says all of these groups will impact next year's elections.

"Muslims will probably tilt toward the Democratic Party. Jews will be strong supporters of the Democratic Party as they always have been. Mormons will be even more Republican than they are now, which is strongly Republican," says Hertzke. "And mainline Protestants who are a shrinking group in America, but nonetheless still a sizeable constituency, have become more aligned with the Democratic Party than they used to be. And so both parties are making religious appeals to capture the religious vote in America." 

While many analysts see religion playing a more prominent role in U.S. politics in recent years, John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life says its influence has been cyclical.

"From a historical perspective, we're in one of those periods where religion is unusually prominent. But there have been periods in American history when religion never quite goes away, but it recedes and it becomes a less of a prominent feature. I suspect that historians 50 or 60 years from now might have a hard time telling 2004 from 2008. Both of them are elections in which religion is very prominent," says Green. 

Whichever way the religious pendulum swings - - be it evangelical, Catholic, mainline Protestant or any other denomination - - most analysts agree that faith will play a crucial role in determining who will be the next president of the United States.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.