By CBSNews.com producer Jarrett Murphy
Two days before the New Hampshire primary, the Rev. Christopher Emerson on Sunday told his flock at Manchester's First Congregational Church about a problem that John Kerry or Howard Dean could also talk about:
Emerson was hearkening back to the 1950s, when his church was the largest protestant congregation north of Boston "with 2,700 people here on Easter Day in 1957." That was back when "all decent people were expected to go to church, and they did."
"But this is not 1957," he added.
As a knifing wind swept the streets of Manchester on the last Sunday before the vote, many residents headed to houses of worship seeking sanctuary — from everyday life, the cold and, perhaps, the presidential race.
But since that race is one where war, abortion, gay marriage, a candidate's religion and other moral matters loom large, the complex interplay between religion and politics was on display at the pulpit and in the pews Sunday.
Among those interviewed or heard, there was no disagreement that God had a place in public life. The question was over where he belonged.
During the prayers of intention at St. Anthony of Padua on Belmont Street, the faithful petitioned to God "that voters may choose as wisely as possible in the coming election."
There was also a prayer for God's spirit to guide leaders at the "local, state and national level." For parishioner Colette Lamarier, that spirit will also guide her ballot.
"I believe that anybody who will humble themselves before God will be a good servant for the American people," said Lemarier, a longtime parish resident. "When you follow God's word, black and white is really easy, right and wrong is really easy."
To Lemarier, a candidate's having faith in God is more important that his stand on particular issues, like abortion rights, which she opposes. President Bush, for example, is not perfect, but "does put God and God's principles first."
For another parishioner, who asked only to be identified as Colette, the candidate's platforms do matter.
"I pay attention to their stand on life issues, on abortion, on anything pro-life, on death issues," she said.
At First Congregational a few blocks away on Union Street, Emerson's sermon, called "Exiled by the Culture?", was about the way popular culture and public discourse have relegated faith to the outskirts of modern society.
"In recent years Christians have to defend going to church and explain their faith to skeptics in our society who now seriously outnumber us," he preached. "The world has changed and your voice has been challenged and outvoted by the popular culture."
"We are endangered species," he added.
That might seem a strange complaint in a country where Mr. Bush claims Jesus Christ is his favorite philosopher, where former Gov. Dean speaks openly about his faith and where Joe Lieberman does not campaign on Saturdays because he observes the Sabbath.
But for Emerson, "reducing delicate social issues to a mere slogan has bedeviled politics and religion."
"We are being squeezed into exile because we are caught in a culture war of right versus left," Edwards said. "A measured and moderated look at the complex issues of our society is actively discouraged today.
"From the right we are told to subscribe to religious values narrowly defined, to a patriotism narrowly enforced. And from the left we are told to subscribe to a radical agenda for political action."
Emerson believes his church must avoid either prescription. And indeed, most of the services at both First Congregational and St. Anthony's had nothing to do with politics. The faithful at First Congregational baptized 16-month-old Alexis into the fold and prayed for two congregants who are ill, Dot and Helen. Those gathered at St. Anthony's prayed for deceased parish members and bought tickets for Pie Night at $8 per person.
Likewise on the campaign trail, religion is unlikely to dominate the race for president. But it will probably come up. Should candidates mention their faith?
"Why should they be ashamed of it?" said Colette, although she notes, "It bothers me if they're not genuine."
But it can be difficult to tell whether they are or not, Lemarier said. "I can't judge them," she said. "I don't know what's in their heart."
Even a candidate who does not mention faith may demonstrate it, she adds. "There is a certain truth that comes out in people's eyes," said Lemarier.
By Jarrett Murphy
By Jarrett Murphy