(CNSNews.com) - Many overtly religious words and phrases have become as common as campaign promises in the oratory of America's political leaders since the September 11 terrorist attacks. But what, if any role will religion play in the conservative agenda for 2002?
In his September 15 radio address to the nation, president Bush made at least three direct references to religious themes.
"We are planning a broad and sustained campaign to secure our country and eradicate the evil  of terrorism. And we are determined to see this conflict through. Americans of every faith  and background are committed to this goal," Bush said. "In the past week, we have seen the American people at their very best everywhere in America. Citizens have come together to pray , to give blood, to fly our country's flag. Americans are coming together to share their grief and gain strength from one another."
Bush and other conservative lawmakers have continually referred to the U.S. and its allies in terms of being "right" and fighting a "righteous" battle, while defining terrorists and their supporters in the Taliban government as the "forces of darkness," and "evildoers."
But Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who has worked for both Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), warns that conservatives will not be able to successfully transform a loose affiliation with religious themes into overt conservative religious influence over policy decisions.
"For example ... there's no question that if George Bush nominates an 'anti-choice' nominee to the Supreme Court there is gonna be a major conflict over that and it's a conflict I think that the Republicans will lose," Mellman said. "[Abortion supporters] don't want a small group of so-called 'moral majoritarians' to use the court to enforce their version of morality on the rest of us."
Michael Barone, author of The Almanac of American Politics, says liberals trying to discredit religious influence in politics may be gaining ground by linking the strong beliefs of religious conservatives in the U.S. with the religious-based violence of "Islamists" in Afghanistan.
"The project of informing public policy by strong religious belief may be cast into some doubt," he said, "although it's unfair to compare the American 'religious right' to the Taliban."
Barone believes the power of religious conservatives and other groups to influence legislative content and presidential nominations may be significantly diminished by such tactics.
Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol, however, believes that religion will continue to play a significant role in America's political discourse.
"You have the President of the United States, who is the most explicitly religious president, certainly since Carter ... who is at 87 percent popularity and talks about 'evildoers,'" he explained. "I would argue that the values issue [and] healthcare are the two most likely 'big' issues for Congress, and for the administration over the next three years, apart from, obviously, the war and the economy."
Mellman, Barone, and Kristol spoke at a Hudson Institute briefing Thursday.
Kristol feels a new moral issue like cloning, on which many voters have not yet developed firmly-entrenched positions, have great potential for volatility.
"There is some sense that something interesting is happening out there and one has to decide about the relation of religion and politics in the context of things like cloning coming up as legislative agenda items," he concluded. "I think you could have a values-driven election in '02, and the history of values-driven elections is that it's very hard to see how they play out."
See Earlier Story:
The Conservative Agenda 2002: Tax Reform, (Jan. 3, 2002)