The Wall Street Journal has a knack for coming up with stories that prompt a “now why didn’t I think of that?” from other journalists. In Friday’s always-fascinating Weekend Journal section of the paper, Elizabeth Bernstein delivers (subscription required) a prime example of the genre.

Headlined “All the Candidates’ Clergy,” Bernstein profiles the religious leaders who are exerting the most influence on President Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry. She introduces readers to the Rev. Ted Haggard of Colorado, who participates in a weekly conference call with the White House to keep Republicans abreast of the mood of the conservative community. And to the Rev. James Forbes Jr. of New York City, who has been urging the Democrats “to discuss religion more often and publicly.” And to several others with diverse religious philosophies.

Writes Bernstein:

In an unusually tight election year, the clergy are becoming an increasingly important bridge to the faithful and the votes they can deliver on Nov. 2. Sen. John Kerry has hired a director of religious outreach — from the evangelical movement — making him one of the few Democratic candidates ever to do so. … On the Bush side, the Republican National Committee is mounting a “Catholic Outreach Tour,” while White House strategist Karl Rove has turned to the Rev. Richard Land, a leading Southern Baptist, for feedback on the proposed same-sex marriage amendment and stem-cell research.

Much of the activity is taking place out of view for strategic reasons: Basically neither candidate wants to show his hand. At the same time, the religious leaders want to avoid the appearance of endorsing a particular candidate. The result is a “stealth campaign” that’s “nearly invisible” to voters, says the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a group that monitors religious freedom.

The faith-based push is especially important at a time when Americans are polarized over issues that can be intertwined with religious beliefs, such as gay marriage and the war in Iraq.

Bernstein is right. The role of religion in society, and the religious beliefs of both candidates, have emerged as a strong undercurrent in the 2004 campaign, one which the media has for the most part ignored. Bernstein and the Journal provide a fascinating guide to the players in this backstage drama.

Susan Q. Stranahan

Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.