Vice-President Al Gore chose a safe venue—a Salvation Army gathering in Atlanta—to start talking about religion. But he knew he had to go beyond such comfortable surroundings if he was to make a serious case that "without values of conscience, our political life degenerates."

Gore's Atlanta speech, which called for a new partnership between government and faith-based institutions, was soon followed by a meeting with journalists who cover religion. As he entered the Ward Room at the White House, 30 minutes late and apologetic, Gore was prepared to talk about faith and government with columnists and beat reporters from such secular media as the Washington Post, the New York Times, USA Today and ABC television.

Gore proceeded to cite the well-known theologian Reinhold Niebuhr along with the lesser-known philosophers Edmund Husserl, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, prompting Times columnist Peter Steinfels to remark: "To hear the name Merleau-Ponty trip off the tongue of a major American politician is surely extraordinary. Whether it is a qualification to be president is an entirely different matter."