By Jeff Sharlet:

Religion in politics: David Brooks “gets it” as usual, and once he’s got it — the political usefulness of faith, that is, not faith itself — he sprints away with it, remarkably agile for a stubby little man in control of a ball passed to him by superstar point guard Karl Rove.

In his column for today’s NYT, Brooks — faking out Times readers with his eerie impression of an amiable observer of the game — writes that “Bill Clinton understands the role religion actually plays in modern politics. He knows Americans want to be able to see their leaders’ faith.”

But even as Brooks smiles at the ghosts of Democrats past, he drives a sharp elbow hard into the gut of the current incarnation: “the real political story of the past decade has been the growing size and cohesion of the secular left, and its growing influence on the Democratic Party.” He also argues that Kerry had better suit up as a team player for the Lord, and soon, if he’s serious about this campaign.

True? Possibly. Certainly all the more so now that Brooks has said so. The alleged desire of Americans to be led by a holier-than-themselves president has become a mantra of both the right and of Democrats who believe that loudly pledging belief is the only way to avoid being left behind. When it comes to the intangibility of religion, the media takes an oddly religious approach — repeat an idea often enough and it’ll become “fact,” measurable by concrete numbers. Brooks notes that “a recent Time magazine survey revealed that only 7 percent of Americans feel that Kerry is a man of strong religious faith. That’s a catastrophic number. That number should be the first thing Kerry strategists think about when they wake up in the morning and it should be the last thing on their lips when they go to sleep at night.”

Why is Brooks — a Republican with no apparent faith of his own — eager to help Kerry — a committed, if unorthodox, Catholic — get religion? Maybe because he knows Kerry can’t. The more Kerry tries to showcase his “religious involvement,” as Brooks puts it, the more this “powerful predictor” plays to Republican advantage, since Bush has made his faith a matter not just a matter of ultimate concern, but of first concern.

Brooks claims to be simply observing the will of the people, as expressed in Pew surveys showing that many Americans like a little God in the White House, so to speak. But he does no reporting to back up his argument. Nor can he cite any. The press has adopted Brooks’ religion corollary to his famed “red-state, blue-state” divide with great enthusiasm, but if anyone has actually investigated the role of religion in the average person’s political decision-making the way it should be examined — case by case by case — they must have buried the evidence in the Saturday dead zone reserved for reports of church socials and bake sales. God gets in the news only so much as God plays the endorsement game. Actual belief, as experienced by real people rather than manifested in polls? Well, if you can’t count it, you can’t bet on it — so why bother watching?

But faith isn’t just a political “predictor”; it’s faith. That means it’s also a mystery. To their credit, both Bush and Kerry understand this, albeit in different ways. Bush doesn’t try to justify the firmness of his faith, and Kerry doesn’t try to explain his. The distinction between them isn’t one of holiness vs. secularism, but of religious traditions and experiences. Bush’s faith came to him quickly and completely, salvation from a life that’d been leading nowhere. Kerry regained his after taking other people’s lives in Vietnam, and grew into it slowly. Bush’s religion is radical; Kerry’s is conservative. Neither man has much respect for authority within their ostensible traditions, Methodism and Catholicism.

Ok, says the pundit, but so what? Perception is all. And the perception of wonks such as Brooks and his liberal counterparts, focused wholly on the kind of politics that can be reported on like sports, doesn’t include the peculiarities of religion, not even that of presidential candidates. Pundits operate by dividing the world between two propositions and then naming one the winner. Spice is added by “swing voters,” who nonetheless are expected to line up neatly on one side sooner or later. There are only two options, and when it comes to religion, pundits and their echoes in the news pages are as subtle about their beliefs as a camp revival preacher: Either you got it or you don’t.