“How many of you have the Bible (app) on your phone? I bet all of you do,” Carter said to laughs. Worshippers listened as the Democrat running for Georgia governor read from his phone a New Testament verse about the importance of “things that are not seen.”
The technology has changed in the four decades since Jimmy Carter spoke openly about his religious beliefs while campaigning, first for Georgia governor and then president. But the broader message of a shared faith remains the same.
Religion offers a powerful connection with many in the South, considered the most religious part of the country. Some Democrats hoping to reverse Republican gains in Georgia and elsewhere are finding their faith can be a valuable way to reach voters.
Religion can be a very personal matter, and candidates across the South vary in how much they are willing to talk about their faith.
In Georgia, U.S. Senate candidate Michelle Nunn highlighted her faith in an early TV ad about her grandmother, whom she called “Mama.”
“I remember as a child, going to church with Mama, every Sunday in Perry and learning how we live out our faith by helping others,” Nunn, a Democrat, says as an image of her as a young child sitting in church flashes on the screen.
Nunn, in an interview, said faith is a powerful bond shared by many. Raised Methodist, she attends church in Atlanta and is raising her two children in the Methodist faith.
“I think that faith is certainly something that transcends political parties,” Nunn said. “The reason I decided to talk about it is because it’s an important part of who I am.”
Sometimes, candidates are even more direct in highlighting their religious beliefs.
U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, one of the most vulnerable Democrats up for re-election this year, is trying to win over those who might disagree with his vote for the federal health care law but who might be willing to support someone who calls the Bible his compass.
In a statewide TV ad late last year, Pryor said: “The Bible teaches us no one has all the answers: only God does. And neither political party is always right.”
In the Kentucky race, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes is said to pray before campaign events and had a priest with the family on the night of the primary election, but she rarely mentions her faith during campaign stops.
It’s particularly interesting given that when her father, Jerry Lundergan, was chairman of Kentucky’s Democratic Party, he pushed it to embrace religion, arguing Democrats should not let Republicans define themselves as the party of faith.
“For me, your actions speak louder than words,” Grimes said. “And while you may not hear it in my public comments, (my faith) is the underlying tone I think that has kept this campaign on the ground of putting people instead of partisan politics first.”
Nationally, Kentucky and Georgia may represent the Democrats’ best hopes to thwart a Republican plan to take control of the U.S. Senate. Both Grimes and Nunn are considered to be strong recruits who have already proved to be prolific fundraisers. Religion could offer them an important way to expand their base of support and bring in more rural voters.
Regardless of party affiliation, the South has the highest concentration of people who identify themselves as religious. Gallup polling last year found that the most religious states in the country were in the South. Among those, 52 percent in Georgia said they were very religious, while 49 percent in Kentucky reported the same.
A Gallup survey earlier this year found that Southern Democrats are much more likely to say religion is an important part of their daily life – about 74 percent, compared with 57 percent of Democrats from outside the South.