Sep 15, 2006
By Richard Allen Greene
The first bumper sticker I saw when I arrived in the United States said "Got Jesus?" So did the second one. And the third.The stickers - a religious take on a milk advertising campaign - were plastered on a Ford van in Detroit.
The next day I ran across a lawn sign asking "Need prayer?" There was a free phone number on the sign: 1-800-541-PRAY.
Americans are a deeply religious people - and one - as the stickers prove - comfortable with public displays of faith.
In fact, although the United States has a constitutional barrier separating church and state, the vast majority of Americans want their leaders to be religious.
A poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 72% agreed with the statement "The president should have strong religious beliefs."
A majority of respondents thought both President George W Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry mentioned their faith the right amount.
"I want to be sure that the person I vote in has got some religious beliefs - as long he has some convictions about his faith and is not afraid to say so," said Raymond Barber of Sea Breeze, Florida.
"The candidate I am going to vote for is the right guy from that standpoint. Each time he has a speech he puts God in there and I like that," Mr Barber said, declining to name the candidate.
Mr Bush is a born-again Christian. Mr Kerry is Catholic.
Randle Cameron, a bus driver in Colorado Springs, said he had not yet decided who he was going to vote for - but that religion would guide his vote.
"I will ask my Father, my master Jesus Christ what man I would like to have [as president]", he said. "Which man believes in Jesus Christ the most?"
But there are people who feel just as strongly that religion has no place in American politics.
Nancy Coulter-Parker, a young mother in Boulder, Colorado, said she was not anti-religious, but did not want policy made on the basis of faith.
She cited a range of issues where she felt religion had intruded improperly into the political sphere, including abortion, stem cell research, education, and the Iraq war.
"Everyone is entitled to have their belief and I am completely supportive of that but I don't believe it has a place in the US in the way the country is run or decisions are made," she said.
Two hours south of Boulder, one of the most socially liberal places in America, lies Colorado Springs - one of the most conservative.
Pastor Ted Haggard leads the New Life Church there, an Evangelical mega-church that is expanding its premises because its 2,500-seat sanctuary is too small.
It runs three Sunday morning services to accommodate demand while a new 7,500-seat hall is built - and cars sit bumper-to-bumper in the car park between services as one wave of worshippers leaves and another enters.
Pastor Ted, as his 11,000 congregants call him, opposes abortion and extracting stem cells from foetuses, calling it "no different from Hitler making lampshades out of skin".
"Christians aren't going to buy that," he said.
Mr Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, also opposes gay marriage.
"Our concern as the Evangelical church is to preserve the sanctity of marriage. We're going to try to keep the state from tampering with it. Our position is that it's sacred and needs to be protected, so we'll give our best argument," he said.
But, he went on cheerfully, "We're probably going to lose.
"Yeah, we're going to lose because of the global trend toward freedom, which we think is wonderful. But when you have a global trend toward freedom, then there are some areas where you're going to lose socially."
Pew Forum research suggests he is right: the percentage of Americans who strongly oppose gay marriage fell from 41% in 1996 to 30% in 2003, while the numbers who favour or strongly favour it climbed by the same amount.
White Evangelical opposition to gay marriage remained steady during that period, as did African-Americans'.
Discussing Evangelical Christianity's opposition to the social trend, Mr Haggard echoed the position of Boulder's liberal young mothers.
"It's not good for the church to confuse its role with the state. I'll give you an example: I'll stand in church and I'll preach against unmarried boys and girls having sex with one another," he said.
"But let's say an unmarried boy and girl decide to have sex in their car as they're leaving the church parking lot. I don't believe the police officer directing traffic should be able to arrest them for that.
"I think the church needs to be able to [express] a moral imperative, but there are cases where that moral imperative is no business of the state."
Again, research suggests that Mr Haggard's is the mainstream American view: Two-thirds of Americans say churches should not endorse political candidates, but a slim majority say they should express views on political issues.
White Evangelical Christians - a group that may represent as much as a quarter of the American electorate - tend to be Republicans, Mr Haggard said, while black Evangelicals tend to be Democrats.
Not all American Christians are Evangelicals.
While thousands of congregants sang soft-rock hymns to lyrics projected on huge TV screens at New Life Church, the First Congregational Church in Colorado Springs held a discussion entitled "Your Faith, Your Vote."
About 20 people gathered in an annexe next door to the rough-hewn church - a building that would not look out of place in Oxford or Boston - to hear a pair of speakers who had been to the two party conventions.
The Democrat was a member of the congregation; the Republican was a specially invited guest.
Surrounded by posters with slogans like "Peace is Patriotic" and "I'm a witness for Justice," many congregants expressed opposition to the war in Iraq and their disgust with President Bush.
"I choose in my own heart to believe that we are all made in Christ's image, but if I think something is wrong I really will speak out, and I think this country is on the wrong track," said Ann Whitlock, a nurse practitioner who supports gay rights and opposes a ban on abortion.
"I mean, let's face it, Christ would have had a ball with the people Bush doesn't support. The people that Bush condemns would have been Christ's congregation, the outcasts of society," she said.
She said she believed Mr Bush was a sincere Christian - but too small-minded.
"God is bigger. He is not your little Texan God."