Brad Plumer's post comparing religiously-motivated candidates with candidates attempting to appear religiously-motivated is all sorts of good, read it. But it touches on a personal crusade of mine, that "religious" is nothing more than a heuristic for moral. For Dean to strut on stage and begin talking about the Sadducees is a bit insane -- does he really think red-state voters are just waiting for him to reference an obscure Jewish sect that sought to restore the dominance of the High Priest? Worse, Dean's doesn't need religion, Kerry does. That's because we're not actually talking about religion here, we're talking about conviction.
I'm not sure when we conflated the two, probably somewhere around the moment we cross-tabbed George Bush's poll numbers on conviction and religious faith. In any case, it's straight silly to believe that there's some horde of voters checking off each mention of Jesus on some Church-provided scorecard. It's just not happening. What is happening is that the religious, by virtue of their capacity for faith, radiate a certitude that makes them appear trustworthy and true. The religious mindset is inclined towards full-tilt faith, and anyone trained to obliterate contradictions and questions can and will transfer that talent to other strongly held convictions. So while Kerry may believe the poor should be helped, a natural skeptic like him will never match born-again Bush's dead-simple conviction.
Dean exists across this spectrum, he's the counterexample. Neither religious -- he left his Church over a bike path -- nor given to internal doubt, he nevertheless appears to be a man animated by pure values and conviction. That's where his movement came from, down-and-out Democrats reacting to his quasi-religious -- a term that actually means supernaturally certain -- faith in the power and future of progressivism. Dean need not reference the Sadducees, he shouldn't start sprinkling allusions to the Essenes into his speech. All he needs to do is speak; the guy's values are instantly apparent.
So I agree with Brad, if we want religious leaders, we need to recruit the real articles, not give our politicians a list of terms to inject into their speech. But we don't need them. We need candidates a few steps removed from doubt and uncertainty. We need people, above all, who sound like they believe. If the belief is in Christ, so be it. But the belief is no less powerful if it's on the eradication of poverty or the end of hunger -- we're looking for conviction, not fishing for religion.