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John Kasich brings a little bit of Jesus to secular New Hampshire

U.S. Republican presidential candidate and Ohio Governor John Kasich answers a question from the audience at a campaign town hall meeting at New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire September 2, 2015.

REUTERS/Brian Snyder

MANCHESTER, New Hampshire -- John Kasich has been a practicing politician for nearly 30 years, but he's making sure voters know he's still a regular guy.

At campaign stops around the state, voters might hear about his Spotify play list, which features Green Day, Linkin Park, Roger Waters and Bastille. He's the son of a mailman -- a key part of his biography he mentions at most campaign stops. He likes Snapchat and Facebook, and like opponent Jeb Bush, he uses Uber. He's also got a pretty good golf swing, which he's happy to show you. Last week, he changed from a plaid button down shirt into a purple and black striped golf shirt between campaign events, much to the surprise of a press corps accustomed to candidates in starched shirts and ties.

In New Hampshire at least, it's a shtick that seems to be working.

"He takes his pants off one leg at a time, just like the rest of us," said Lorraine Lanski, a Republican who came to see Kasich speak at a Bedford house party last week. "My father was a mailman just like his father was. He's just like us."

As Kasich works overtime to be the Mr. Relatable of the 2016 presidential race, there is another feature of his regular-guy talking points that stands out: he talks about the role of his faith in his life all the time. That's not unusual for politicians, especially Republicans. But Kasich, the governor of Ohio, is pinning his success on a strong performance in the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire, a state where religious fervor does not run particularly deep. A 2012 survey from Gallup identified New Hampshire and Vermont as the two "least religious" states in the country.

"I believe that the Lord has a purpose for each of us," Kasich said in New London recently. "For me, I think that we're handed special blessings to do the thing we were carved to do the day we were born. I felt called out into politics...I thought I could fix things."

For most of the other right-leaning Republicans in the field, faith should be used by the government to curb behavior they consider to be sinful - bans on abortion and same-sex marriage, for instance.

But God leads Kasich in a different direction than his GOP brethren. The government, he argues, needs to use its power to improve the lives of those who are suffering here and now.

This is why he agreed to the Medicaid expansion for Ohio, while many other Republican governors rejected it. And it's why he talks about climate change, drug abuse and helping "people in the the shadows." When you listen to him, Kasich can sometimes sound as much like a progressive social worker as a Republican presidential candidate. But he really just has his own interpretation of what it means to be a religious conservative.

"Conservatism is about having a big heart, giving people an opportunity to live out their God-given purpose," Kasich said in Bedford. "We all need to be centers of justice and centers of healing."

During a speech at New England College in Henniker last week, Kasich defended his belief in climate change, saying Americans have a moral duty to protect the natural environment.

"We were created to be stewards of God's creation, and God's creation is the environment," Kasich said. "And we have to take care of it. We can't worship it. If we worship it, that's called pantheism and that is a sin. We don't worship other things. But we should be good stewards."

Religion comes up more frequently during Republican events in more conservative early-voting states like Iowa and South Carolina than in New Hampshire. Kasich's faith comes out in just about every speech he delivers anywhere in the country, even in New Hampshire, where he's staking his presidential hopes.

"New Hampshire voters, including Republican voters, don't typically gravitate towards an overtly religious candidate, said Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire. "However, I think there's a difference between how Kasich conveys it and the way that a religious Ben Carson or Santorum conveys it."

Kasich's faith is manifest more as an attitude, Scala said, than as a judgment of the private decisions of Americans - like abortion or whom they marry. And New Hampshire voters so far seem to like him. While Donald Trump still leads Republicans, a RealClearPolitics average of New Hampshire polls shows Kasich in second place.

"His method won't make New Hampshire Republicans queasy the way that a Ted Cruz or Huckabee does," Scala said. "He's wearing his religion on his sleeve a bit, but what he's showing is okay."

Raised Catholic, Kasich became a Protestant after both of his parents were killed in a car accident. Today, he attends an Anglican Church in his hometown of Westerville, Ohio.

"My faith has gotten deeper," Kasich told one crowd last week at New England College in Henniker. "Why does that matter? Because it's given me perspective. I've learned over time that tone matters."

That tone affects not just how he talks about policy, but also the way he approaches voters and the media. During his time as governor, Kasich developed a reputation as thin-skinned and sometimes cranky. But he has worked to present a friendlier, more charming persona on the trail.

"So you know you have some freckles," Kasich asked a college freshman during a house party last week, ensnared by a circle of media outlets. "Yes, I do," the girl replied.

"You know what they say? They say a girl without freckles is like a night without stars," Kasich replied, smiling with one hand on his hip, pausing for the approving coos that followed.

Kasich attributes his "mellowing," as one New Hampshire voter phrased it to him, to his faith. "You got to be nice to people," Kasich told a crowd in Hookset recently. "You got to treat 'em with respect, you got to put your arm around them. You got to just get them to believe that they are there for a higher purpose. We have to tell people that we're all in this together."

Kasich's invocation of Christianity to defend his expansion of Medicaid in Ohio under Obamacare has rankled conservatives for years. In New Hampshire, a few conservative voices have also been critical of his pitch.

Paul Nagy, a Christian conservative from Andover who worked on Pat Buchanan's insurgent campaign here in 1996, penned a scathing op-ed in the Concord Monitor attacking Kasich.

"Kasich famously questioned the Christian morality of those who oppose Obamacare," he wrote. "Supporting a massive expansion of the federal government is moral, yet protecting the life of the unborn is an issue Republicans should give up on? One might be tempted to chalk this up as some harebrained triangulation strategy to appeal to a segment of moderate or liberal voters. But Kasich's apparent newfound respect for Roe v. Wade has real world consequences for some of the most vulnerable among us."

But Kasich and his campaign are quick to push back against the suggestion that religion is the sole force behind his campaign and policies. Kasich has one of the most impressive resumes in the race: he's a former House Budget chairman, investment banker and now, a two-term governor of Ohio and its healthy economy. As he said on CNN last month, he "doesn't read a Bible to figure out what to think."

"John has a very clear vision for what he can bring to public service what he's brought to Ohio and he speaks candidly about his belief about the real purpose, to serve in that capacity," said former New Hampshire Sen. John Sununu, a former Mitt Romney ally now supporting Kasich. "But I don't think that's an anchor point of the campaign. It's just his way of sharing with people, so that they better understand the kind of person he is as a public servant, and that's important."