In the beginning, Gov. Chris Christie’s Catholicism was a personal affair.
When he was famously asked in 2011 why he sends his four kids to Catholic school instead of the public schools he oversees, Christie said this: "Ya know what? First off, Gayle, that’s none of you business...I don’t ask where you send your kids to school, don’t ask where I send mine."
And when he was asked if he believed in evolution, Christie responded similarly. "That’s none of your business," he said. "That’s my personal view. None of your business."
But what was once personal has become political of late. Presidential candidates are expected to talk about faith, and that’s exactly what Christie has begun to do. He has figured out how to speak about God in ways that can appeal to both religious conservatives and urban minorities – two key groups who could help decide the 2016 presidential race.
This fall, the governor only made a handful of public appearances in New Jersey, but several of those were centered on his top issue these days — drug treatment initiatives. And when he speaks about this issue, he envelops it in spiritual language.
"Here but for the grace of God go I," he often says. "And that’s how I look at people with addiction. There but for the grace of God go I."
A few weeks later at a visit to a drug treatment program for women in Trenton, Christie said: "Every life, every life, is an individual gift from God, and no one is beyond redemption."
Days after that, speaking to the New Jersey chapter of the NAACP, Christie went further: "I don’t think second chances are the domain of just Democrats and Republicans. Because from my perspective, we have sinners and wrongdoers plenty in both parties. All of them want a second chance."
A second chance is an apt message for this governor, who has spent the year answering questions about the Bridgegate scandal. And his new focus has a likelihood of registering with socially conservative Republicans in the presidential primaries. To those audiences he talks about being pro-life throughout life -- from the womb all the way to adulthood, when drug offenders should be given a second chance.
South Carolina's Religious Conservatives
I asked Republicans in South Carolina, a religious state with a crucial early role in the primaries, what they expected from Christie when it comes to God. They said he doesn’t need to preach from the lectern. Instead, Cindy Costa, a South Carolina Republican national committeewoman, said they just want him to be comfortable using spiritual language.
"I think he should embrace that part of his life because people like to hear about that, and it gives comfort to people to hear that he lives a life greater than himself," she said.
South Carolina Republicans say they want a Christian in the Oval Office, but it doesn’t matter what church that person attends. America has changed since the election of its first (and only) Catholic president more than a half-century ago.
Like President John F. Kennedy, Christie does not use his Catholicism to justify policy decisions. He became pro-life, he says, after seeing a sonogram of his daughter’s heart beating in utero -- not because his priest told him to be. And he has rejected Planned Parenthood funding every year for fiscal reasons, he says, not religion ones.
Kennedy is a role model for Christie. Christie’s Catholic grandmother in Newark first exposed him to the president’s words. As a kid Christie slept over her house on the weekends, and would join her at church, which she attended every single day.
Lately Christie has been telling a story about how he prayed before taking a test -- but got a C nonetheless.
"I'm not going to pray anymore," Christie told his grandmother.
"What are you talking about?" his grandmother asked.
"Well I prayed and God didn’t answer my prayers," he said.
"No Chris, you’re wrong. God always answers your prayers. But sometimes the answer is no."
Christie's Home Parish
Catholicism remained a steady presence in Christie’s life as he grew up. He married Mary Pat Foster, who was raised in a large Catholic family outside of Philadelphia. The Christies say grace before family dinners. And for years, Mary Pat taught Sunday religious classes at their church, St. Joseph’s in Mendham.
Mass takes place in a well air-conditioned sanctuary under a wooden pitched roof, with a virtually all-white crowd that quietly arrives casually dressed in jeans. The music from the choir is slow, beautiful and simple, and on this day the homily is parabolic — dealing with laborers who are given the same amount of money regardless of how many hours they work. Afterward, the priest asked parishioners to take home empty pans to fill with food for a needy sister church in Paterson.
Sandy and Jim Bradley, long-time parishioners, said caring for the poor is part of the ethos of the church. They described the Christies as active parishioners, but that's changed a bit since the Sunday after Christie's election in 2009, when the governor-elect first showed up with state troopers who themselves took communion.
"You don’t see him as much on Sunday because he’s away on the weekends a lot," Jim Bradley said.
Praying In Newark
I don't find Christie here on this particular Sunday. Instead, he is a half-hour and a full world away in Newark, at New Hope Baptist Church. Here, the faithful dance in the aisles and run up to fan choir singers as sweat rolls down their faces. Drum beats and clapping hands send vibrations throughout the pews. And despite the warmth of the room everyone is dressed up, with ushers wearing white gloves.
Just three men in the pews at New Hope today are white: It's me, an enthusiastic ex-gang member sitting next to me -- and the governor of New Jersey. He’s nodding his head to the beat. His hands are in the air, palms facing the pastor. And at one point, he hugs the mother of Whitney Houston, who once sang here on Sunday mornings. Christie spends about three hours at New Hope; he's on his own, except for his security detail. The visit was not listed on his public schedule.
"He said he just wanted to be here with us," Pastor Joe Carter says from the pulpit, introducing Christie.
Christie listens as Carter praises a real world God, a God who can provide redemption to the ex-offenders and hard-luck inner city residents before him.
Days after bobbing his head to words about God’s forgiveness at New Hope’s Sunday services, Christie returns to the same church for a conference on drug addiction and makes a speech using similar words of redemption.
But Christie doesn’t only find religion within the confines of church, Baptist or Catholic. He worships at the church of Bruce Springsteen, too.
In 2011, a report in The New York Post accused Christie of falling asleep at a Springsteen concert. At the time, I asked him about that. He said that’s not what happened at all.
"What happened was during 'Rocky Ground,' which is kind of a really spiritual song, people sat," Christie said. "So I sat on my seat, and I put my head back and closed my eyes and listened to the song."
The song has exactly the kind of redemptive message that Christie is now so publicly evoking. It speaks not only to those struggling with addiction to drugs, but to a man facing rocky ground ahead: Trying to become president of the United States.