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ATLANTA -- Jason Carter, former President Jimmy Carter's grandson, stepped into the pulpit of South Columbus United Methodist Church for a Palm Sunday sermon and offered a message of Christian responsibility to the poor, with his phone in hand.
"How many of you have the Bible (app) on your phone? I bet all of you do," Carter said to laughs from the crowd. Worshippers listened as the Democrat running for Georgia governor read from his phone a New Testament verse about the importance of "things that are not seen."
The technology has changed in the four decades since Jimmy Carter spoke openly about his religious beliefs while campaigning, first for Georgia governor and then president. But the broader message of a shared faith remains the same.
Religion offers a powerful connection with many in the South, considered the most religious part of the country. Some Democrats hoping to reverse Republican gains in Georgia and elsewhere are finding their faith to be a valuable way to reach voters. Religion can be a very personal matter, and candidates vary in how much they are willing to talk about their faith.
In Kentucky, Democratic U.S. Sen. candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes hasn't spoken much publicly about her Catholic upbringing. But in Georgia, U.S. Sen. candidate Michelle Nunn highlighted her faith in an early TV ad about her grandmother, whom she called "Mama."
"I remember as a child, going to church with Mama, every Sunday in Perry and learning how we live out our faith by helping others," Democrat Nunn says as an image of her as a young child sitting in church flashes on the screen.
Nunn, in an interview, said faith is a powerful bond shared by many. Raised Methodist, she attends church in Atlanta and is raising her two children in the Methodist faith.
"I think that faith is certainly something that transcends political parties," Nunn said. "The reason I decided to talk about it is because it's an important part of who I am."
Sometimes, candidates are even more direct in highlighting their religious beliefs.
U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, one of the most vulnerable Democrats up for re-election this year, is trying to win over those who might disagree with his vote for the federal health care law but who might be willing to support someone who calls the Bible his compass.
In a statewide TV ad late last year, Pryor said: "The Bible teaches us no one has all the answers: only God does. And neither political party is always right."
In the Kentucky race, Grimes is said to pray before campaign events and had a priest with the family on the night of the primary election, but she rarely mentions her faith during campaign stops. It's particularly interesting given that when her father, Jerry Lundergan, was chairman of Kentucky's Democratic Party, he pushed it to embrace religion, arguing Democrats should not let Republicans define themselves as the party of faith.
"For me, your actions speak louder than words," Grimes said in a recent interview. "And while you may not hear it in my public comments, (my faith) is the underlying tone I think that has kept this campaign on the ground of putting people instead of partisan politics first."
Nationally, Kentucky and Georgia may represent the Democrats' best hopes to thwart a Republican plan to take control of the U.S. Senate. Both Grimes and Nunn are considered to be strong recruits who have already proved to be prolific fundraisers. Religion could offer them an important way to expand their base of support and bring in more rural voters.
"For Democrats who are disadvantaged politically in the region, it's one way for them to at least attempt to neutralize the impact or the advantage that religiosity has for the Republican Party," said Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political science professor. "If you have a Democrat who can make credible claims of faith that might actually help to undermine support for the Republican candidate at least on the issue of, 'Does this person share my values?'"
Regardless of party affiliation, the South has the highest concentration of people who identify themselves as religious. Gallup polling last year found that the most religious states in the country were in the South. Among those, 52 percent in Georgia said they were very religious, while 49 percent in Kentucky reported the same.
A Gallup survey earlier this year found that Southern Democrats are much more likely to say religion is an important part of their daily life -- about 74 percent, compared with 57 percent of Democrats from outside the South.
In Georgia, Carter, a 38-year-old state senator from Atlanta, is in a tough battle to oust Gov. Nathan Deal four years after Republicans claimed every statewide office. Carter must pick up votes in rural Georgia, wooing those who used to vote Democratic in state elections but have moved over to the GOP in the past two decades.
When Carter's grandfather ran for governor, he featured his faith prominently in campaign literature, describing himself as a lifelong churchman who taught the Bible to children of Navy families while at the U.S Naval Academy. The younger Carter has so far kept discussion about his faith to church visits across the state in recent months.
In an interview, Carter said he doesn't think about how faith affects his campaign but more about how it affects him personally.
"It's incredibly important to me personally, it drives who I am and it drives what I do and how I make decisions," Carter said. "People have to be authentic about who they are and where they come from. What people want in our political world is to understand where our leaders come from."
Associated Press writer Adam Beam in Clinton, Kentucky, and AP Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.
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