It’s no wonder, then, that despite concerted efforts by Democrats since last year’s election–developing religious outreach, hiring faith advisors, and training candidates on how to “talk the talk”–Americans still aren’t buying it. Only 29 percent of voters think the Democratic Party is religion friendly, according to an August 2005 poll by the Pew Research Center. It hasn’t helped that religious conservatives have used events like Justice Sunday to charge that there is a war “against people of faith,” and that a handful of conservative bishops have openly questioned whether Democratic Catholics are “real” Catholics. The end result? Everyone “knows” that Republicans are religious and that Democrats are not.

Take the 2004 election. George W. Bush was viewed as the candidate who inspired religious voters. John Kerry? He was seen as someone who wouldn’t talk about religion except in African-American churches. That really wasn’t the truth: Kerry talked about his faith in his acceptance speech, he discussed Catholic influences on his politics during the debates, and he attended mass nearly each week. But many voters and journalists just didn’t buy that he was truly religious. (Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are the two obvious exceptions to this rule; it’s perhaps not a coincidence that they’re also the only two successful Democratic presidential candidates in the past 40 years.)

It’s no wonder Democrats are frustrated. Some might look at the poll numbers and revert to form–give up, go back to ignoring religion, and thus confirm the rap against them. But before they do, they might want to take a look at the campaign of Tim Kaine, Democratic lieutenant governor and now gubernatorial candidate in Virginia.

Kaine is a Catholic who weaves his faith into nearly every speech, debate, and even some commercials. He’s not without his critics, and it’s not yet clear whether the decision will pay off for him. As of mid-September, he was neck and neck in the polls with Republican opponent Jerry Kilgore. But Kaine has already accomplished something few other Democrats can claim: No one questions his sincerity.

He’s done it by talking about his Catholicism early and often, taking away the charge that it’s a purely political gambit. Unlike many Democrats who try to sound like Bill Clinton but come off as Jerry Falwell crossed with an android, Kaine talks like himself. He not only doesn’t apologize for his religious beliefs, he even wields them as a weapon. As a consequence, Kaine appears to have neutralized the faith issue, freeing himself to make his case to voters about how he would deal with the state’s economy, education, and health care. Win or lose, Kaine is already showing Democrats how to navigate the faith issue. It’s not enough to get religion; they also have to get real.

Sometimes, Tim Kaine doesn’t understand his fellow Democrats. “[They] will say, ‘Hi, I like to windsurf. I got married. I got a couple of kids. Here is where I went to college,’” when introducing themselves to voters, he explains. “People will share all kinds of things about themselves, but they won’t share their faith. If you share the less important things in your life, why wouldn’t you talk about the most important thing?” Kaine has just spent the day crisscrossing southwest Virginia–a townhall meeting in Marion, a peach festival in Stuart–and he has no such problem bringing up his religion with voters.

It may, in fact, be difficult to find a voter who doesn’t know he spent time working at a Catholic mission in Honduras. So far, Kaine has mentioned it at each campaign stop, reflecting on the way that work shaped his devotion to public service. In a debate back in July, Kaine referenced the experience when talking about his opposition to the death penalty and abortion: “I came back from Honduras, having worked with poor kids, with a renewed respect for the sanctity of life.” Even his campaign ads mention faith. “The Bible teaches that we can accomplish great things when we work together,” he says in one.

It’s almost too much. While posing for a photo with Kaine, the ninth-grade Junior Miss Peach mentions something about coming over from Honduras, and he lights up. “I was a missionary in Honduras!” Miss Peach, puzzled, explains that she was talking about the Honduras Coffee Company just down the street. Kaine is so enthusiastic, however, that it’s hard to dismiss him as just faking religion. And the voters who show up to his campaign events seem to share his belief that Democrats should fight their image as being hostile to religion. “We’ve been made the bad guy,” Jane Larimer tells me at the Marion town hall meeting. “We go to church, too,” adds Ralph Booher.

Indeed, talking about religion isn’t just a way to win over Republicans–or even swing voters. Nearly 60 percent of Democratic voters attend church each month, and they wouldn’t mind candidates who seem more like them. University of Akron’s John C. Green, who studies religion and politics, explained to me that few Americans know what a governor actually does, but they can relate to his faith, which becomes shorthand for values and for being real. Kaine agrees: “[Voters] want to see that you have a moral yardstick.”

But it isn’t a matter of simply talking about religion–plenty of Democrats have waded into those waters recently, and not always with success. Candidates, experts like Green say, need to be able to communicate their faith in a way that is personal and sincere. Not everyone can–or should–talk in the cadence of a preacher or country revivalist. What they can do, however, is show how their faith made them who they are.

For Kaine, that story starts in Honduras. A native of Kansas City, Kaine found after his first year at Harvard Law School that he needed to take a break–to get his head “screwed on the right way,” as he says. He decided to volunteer at a Honduras mission that he had first visited as a Catholic high school student; he worked closely with a Catholic missionary named Jim O’Leary, teaching carpentry and welding and religion to vocational students. O’Leary, Kaine says, had a “level of interaction with people [that] was so up close and immediate…. It was such an obvious outgrowth of his faith that it made me decide, ‘That’s the kind of person I want to be.’” After returning to the States and graduating from law school, Kaine moved to Richmond and joined the city council, eventually becoming the city’s mayor in 1998. He attends St. Elizabeth’s, an integrated Catholic church in the city where he sang in its gospel choir for 14 years. (“When I got elected mayor, that meant Wednesday practice night was not an option.”)

In this Virginia gubernatorial campaign, Kaine’s faith comes up informally on the stump. But he has also made a conscious decision to raise it in the context of his opposition to the death penalty. Since 1976, Virginia has executed more prisoners than any state other than Texas. But Kaine has been a longtime opponent of its use. In 1987, while representing a death-row inmate convicted of murdering a widow, he told reporters before the man’s execution: “Murder is wrong in the gulag, in Afghanistan, in Soweto, in the mountains of Guatemala, in Fairfax County… even in the Spring Street Penitentiary [here].” During his campaign for lieutenant governor, he also called for a state moratorium on the death penalty.

Throughout the campaign, Kaine’s opponent–former attorney general Jerry Kilgore–has pounced on that opposition. In their July debate, Kilgore suggested that Kaine might offer clemency to all death row inmates. Yet Kaine swung back with his faith. Kaine responded, “Jerry–I’ll state it again, and I’ll state it clearly: I am not going to apologize to you for my religious belief that life is sacred.” For the record, Kilgore told me that his criticism has nothing to do with Kaine’s religion–“This is about his public policy views.” Indeed, Kaine’s response is the type of thing you’re more likely to hear from Republicans, or conservative judicial nominees.

And it’s worked. For the last few years, Republicans have used faith not only as a way to attract more votes, but also as an effective weapon. Last year, they sent mailings throughout West Virginia and Arkansas, suggesting that Democrats wanted to ban the Bible. More recently, conservatives have complained that Democrats questioning Supreme Court nominee John Roberts’s views on abortion are attacking his Catholic faith. Kaine, however, has attracted criticism for being a flip-flopper, because while he opposes the death penalty and abortion as a matter of faith, he states he’ll uphold Virginia’s laws permitting them. (Kaine’s campaign says that he is pro-choice, although he has supported restrictions on abortion, such as a ban on the so-called “partial-birth” procedure.) “It does have a feel of, ‘I voted for it before I voted against it,’” said a political analyst observing the race, referring to John Kerry’s infamous line last year that he voted for the $87 billion for Iraq before he voted against it.

Kaine’s position is the same one Mario Cuomo promoted two decades ago on abortion, when it was greeted with howls of derision from conservative Catholics. So far, the Church has stayed silent on Kaine’s muddled compromise, although other religious conservatives have not. “It is difficult to talk about his faith but then say he’s unwilling to apply it,” said Victoria Cobb, executive director of The Family Foundation of Virginia, an offshoot of James Dobson’s conservative Focus on the Family.

Despite the criticism he’s received, there is evidence that Kaine’s nuanced positions–“I’m not going to cross my fingers when I take that oath,” he explains to voters–might be paying off. According to a July Mason-Dixon poll, 55 percent of likely Virginia voters said they would consider voting for a candidate who opposes the death penalty but won’t block executions, compared with only 27 percent who said they wouldn’t. Perhaps more tellingly, Kilgore has recently backed away from attacking Kaine on social issues and has instead seized on the thorny issue of immigration and Kaine’s record as Richmond mayor. (A more recent Washington Post poll noted that 41 percent of registered voters think Kaine’s views on the issues are just about right, versus just 27 percent who think he’s too liberal.)

And that means Kaine may have already won a major victory. Too many Democratic candidates, particularly in more conservative areas of the country, never get past the question of whether their faith is sincere and onto the next level, at which they can debate issues of substance and not religious character. The Virginia gubernatorial race will likely not be decided on the matter of candidates’ religiosity or their positions on traditional “moral values” issues. So every time Kaine answers a question about his professional background or his position on Virginia’s flood preparedness, it is a sign that he has neutralized the religion issue that trips up so many of his partisan colleagues.

Kaine isn’t the only Democrat making a leap of faith. Even though Dean might not have helped his cause by stating in June that the Republican Party is “pretty much a white Christian party,” the DNC he chairs has hired a former congressional staffer to develop their religious outreach program. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has established a Faith Working Group, and members in both chambers of Congress have invited a series of progressive religious leaders to sit down and talk with them. Democrats note that their governing philosophies and policies–combating poverty, expanding health-insurance coverage, and promoting civil rights–dovetail with religion and faith. “Democrats really tend to get the Good Samaritan principle; that the purpose of life is to serve God, but also serve your neighbor,” Kaine said.

In addition, next year’s election cycle features several Democratic candidates–including Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who will face Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) in what promises to be next year’s most-watched Senate contest, and U.S. Rep. Harold Ford (D-Tenn.), who is running for the Senate seat that Majority Leader Bill Frist is vacating–who will be talking about their faith on the trail.

As Al Gore and Howard Dean have already learned the hard way, however, Democrats can’t get away with mouthing religious platitudes. It only works if their religiosity seems real.

On that Saturday in August, before heading over to Galax, Va.’s, 70th Annual Old Fiddler’s Convention, Kaine walked into a tiny fiddle shop. Inside, a bluegrass band consisting of four young men–one playing the banjo, one on stand-up bass, one playing guitar, and the other manning the fiddle–was playing a catchy tune, which prompted Kaine’s wife to dance a jig. Once the song was over, Kaine surged toward the band, whipped out a harmonica, and began jamming with the foursome.

The song they played was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Kaine’s performance on harmonica wasn’t spectacular, but it was certainly better than what most politicians (and journalists) could muster. After a couple of verses, the former gospel choir member stopped playing the harmonica and began singing:

Mark Murray

Mark Murray is an off-air political reporter for NBC News.