SOUNDS LIKE A WINNER….Over the past few months, I’ve heard from a number of people inside and outside the Kerry campaign who have suggested phrases and/or entire speeches for the candidate and were told, “That just doesn’t sound like Kerry.” Which was, usually, the point. I personally don’t have any problem with Kerry’s rather long-winded manner of speaking. Maybe that comes from too much time in academia, but I like knowing that at least one candidate for the presidency is a serious, thoughtful kind of guy. His speeches don’t normally make for great primetime viewing, however, which was one of the reasons Democrats were a bit uneasy as the last night of the Convention approached.

Things couldn’t have gone better, however. After a warm-up (in every sense) act featuring the Kerry daughters, a compelling Kerry movie, and Max Cleland, Kerry hit all of the right notes in a speech that managed to not sound like Kerry (lots of good soundbites for the highlight reels) while also not sounding false. It’s a tough line to walk, but the Senator and his team managed it with agility.

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that I was particularly impressed with Kerry’s comments on religion. But I sincerely think that the way he spoke about religion should be a comfort to all Democrats — regardless of what they think about the place of religion in public life — because he demonstrated that George W. Bush’s way is not the only way when it comes to mentioning faith.

Five minutes before Kerry delivered his speech, I got a call with the news that religion language had made it into the text at the last moment. After decades of either staying silent or actively backing away from the topic of religion, Democrats are beginning to understand that they can talk about religion in their own way, that the GOP way of doing things is not the only template for discussing religion in politics.

What Kerry made clear is that there is not only more than one kind of value system in American politics and more than one way of thinking about faith, but also more than one way of talking about all of this. He tapped perfectly into what people don’t like about Bush’s use of faith, understanding that you don’t have to critize religion in general in order to criticize how others use it, that you don’t have to stay silent about your own faith in order to speak out against how others turn theirs into political tools.

Kerry made the first explicit step any Democratic presidential candidate ever has to open the door of the party to people of faith. “No one who has something to contribute will be left on the sidelines,” he said. “And let me say it plainly: in that cause, and in this campaign, we welcome people of faith. America is not us and them.”

That’s huge. That’s a rebuke both to those on the right who would claim religion only for themselves and to those on the left who see evidence of faith as enough to disqualify individuals from participating in the political sphere.

Kerry followed this welcome with a simple, but powerful, profession: “I don’t wear my own faith on my sleeve.” Note the language — I have faith, but I’m not like that other guy. I don’t need to wave it in your face. That’s exactly right and it’s what Democrats can contribute to the discussion. By staying out of it, they have let Republicans get away with parading piety and acting as if that has anything to do with their qualifications for office. But by stepping into the fray and saying instead, you’re not the only ones with faith and you’re not the only ones who get to determine how we talk about it, Democrats get to redefine the debate.

Kerry also hit perfectly what so many Americans dislike about Bush and his appropriation of religion — the arrogant assumption that he knows the mind of God. “I don’t want to claim that God is on our side,” said Kerry, borrowing instead Abe Lincoln’s formulation: “I want to pray humbly that we are on God’s side.”

I know there are those who believe that religion should never ever be acknowledged or discussed in politics. For most, that is a principled position and I respect it. But we’re going to have to agree to disagree. Religion motivates individuals to enter politics as public servants, it motivates citizens when they cast their votes, and one party cannot afford to ignore that fact if the other actively embraces it.

As I’ve noted, however, there are more ways to talk about religion and people of faith than just the George W. Bush template. His way of doing things rightly turns off a whole swath of people, both religious and non-religious. The Kerry way — asserting that, whatever our faith, “one belief binds us: The measure of our character is our willingness to give of ourselves for others and for our country” — presents voters and politicians with another option. Both religion and politics are the better for it.

Amy Sullivan

Amy Sullivan is a Chicago-based journalist who has written about religion, politics, and culture as a senior editor for Time, National Journal, and Yahoo. She was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 2004 to 2006.