Both presidential candidates, one a Roman Catholic and the other an evangelical Protestant, are conversant about their faith, with each man making religious pitches down the stretch.
This Sunday in Florida, Sen. John Kerry will speak on the values that "would shape his decision-making as president," says Mike McCurry, the candidate's spokesman on religious affairs.
Although President Bush is not planning such a singular speech, he constantly refers to God on the campaign stump and did so again yesterday at a rally in Pennsylvania before a private meeting with Roman Catholic Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia.
"In changing times, we will support the institutions that give our lives direction and purpose: our families, our schools, our religious congregations," he told an enthusiastic crowd in Downingtown.
"We stand for a culture of life, in which every person matters and every being counts. We stand for marriage and family, which are the foundation of our society," he said, using a phrase culled from the 1995 papal encyclical Evangelium Vitae to appeal to the state's large Catholic constituency.
Jim Towey, director of the White House Office of Faith-based Initiatives, told a group of religion reporters recently that Mr. Bush's faith naturally informs his values.
"What I like about President Bush is he's open about it," Mr. Towey said.
Mr. Bush's well-documented conversion to born-again Christianity after a conversation with evangelist the Rev. Billy Graham in 1985 first came to the nation's attention in December 1999, when, during a debate among presidential hopefuls in Des Moines, Iowa, he was asked to name his favorite political philosopher.
"Christ," Mr. Bush said, "because He changed my heart."
At least three books have come out in the past 17 months on Mr. Bush's faith, but none is out on Mr. Kerry's beliefs.
However, Mr. Kerry has sketched out his values on the Democratic National Committee's new Web site, www.kerrysharesourvalues.org, which debuted Oct. 7.
It touts a "Kerry/Bush values comparison chart" comparing the senator's ideas on the environment, the war in Iraq, health care, the minimum wage, prescription drugs and other issues unfavorably with those of Mr. Bush.
Under the "work with dignity" category, the Web site used the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan to compare the president to one of the men who walked by a robbed and beaten man.
"For four years, George W. Bush may have talked about compassion, but he's walked right by," the site quotes Mr. Kerry saying. "He's seen people in need, but he's crossed over to the other side of the road."
Mr. Kerry would raise the minimum wage and keep U.S. companies from exporting jobs overseas, the site said.
Mr. Kerry's increased mentions of God on the campaign trail have included noting at an Ohio town-hall meeting on Saturday that he brought his rosary beads into battle during the Vietnam War. He also vowed to "bring my faith with me to the White House, and it will guide me."
The religious talk inspired a tongue-in-cheek press release on Tuesday from the Family Research Council (FRC) asking the senator to "team" with them to sponsor a House of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act upon his return to the Senate. Such a bill would clarify a 1954 law passed by Congress forbidding nonprofit groups to engage in political activity.
The FRC noted Mr. Kerry's presence on Oct. 11 at a Miami church, where several black religious leaders endorsed the Massachusetts Democrat for president.
"Given his new approach to the campaign and new interest in churches, we thought this would be a perfect opportunity for him to work with us," said Connie Mackey, FRC vice president of government affairs.
What really interests the senator is the Catholic social-justice tradition, Mr. McCurry says.
"What resonates with him is the community-building notion of the common good," he said. "It's the way we measure faith both through the works we do and the way faith informs works as we lives our lives," based on James 2, which the senator frequently quotes.
But Gerald Bradley, a University of Notre Dame professor of legal ethics, says the senator is making an end run around the fact that many of his positions on "life" issues, such as abortion, embyronic stem-cell research and euthanasia, run counter to church teaching.
Mr. Bradley says Mr. Kerry is stressing his concern for the poor, "because he will fix those social conditions which under Bush have been a breeding ground for abortion. This is a big thing for Catholics who vote for Kerry. He's the most pro-choice person in the Senate, so there's some angst there."
The Kerry-values site states that Mr. Kerry will work to make "abortion as rare as possible," while pursuing child and maternal health, adoption and teen-pregnancy programs.
"People are saying, 'You're Catholic; don't you know that Bush is causing more abortions than Kerry would?' " Mr. Bradley said. He and Princeton University scholar Robert George posted an essay on National Review Online earlier this week rebutting this argument.
"Nothing is stopping Kerry from attacking joblessness, etc., and the social conditions conducive to abortion and at the same time opposing abortion," Mr. Bradley said. "When we attack the root causes of violent crime or terrorism, no one suggests in the meantime we make murder legal or declare a general amnesty for terrorists."
The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell of Houston, the president's spiritual mentor, said Mr. Bush's views on faith and public policy are "terribly misunderstood and misrepresented."
Countering some published accounts, the minister said, "He doesn't believe God told him to run, he doesn't believe God told him he'd win, and he doesn't believe God told him to drop bombs anywhere in the world."
According to "A Man of Faith" published this spring by former Time magazine correspondent David Aikman, "compassionate conservativism" is the president's Christianity translated into public policy.
"Bush's faith convictions were leading him to look at politics through a lens that, while keeping conservative political convictions in focus, soften their edges with an expression of social conscience," the book says.
But Mr. Towey reports the president is "all business" in the Oval Office.
"He doesn't talk about his personal faith with staff, at least not with me," he said. "I haven't seen him walking about the Oval Office immersed in prayer or levitating."
There are few nonpartisan sources that explain both candidates' positions on issues important to religious people.
When the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) sent both candidates a questionnaire earlier this year asking their stands on dozens of issues, conservative Catholics criticized it as making issues such as immigration and broadcast regulation morally equivalent to the church teaching on abortion and human cloning.
The USCCB abandoned the questionnaire in September, saying neither campaign had responded on time for it to be printed and distributed in parishes nationwide.
Joseph Curl contributed to this report while traveling with the Bush campaign in Pennsylvania.