There was also more general philosophical and political stuff at play. One of the earliest political things he was saying that I agreed with is that Democrats have been too secular -- they ceded religion to the Republicans. Meanwhile, there were plenty of religious progressives/ liberals who were feeling that they didn't really have a place in the Democratic party.
So that was part of what he was doing, reaching out to those groups, and part of that was talking about it personally as well as in the abstract.
I do think that probably came first -- I'm talking about 2002, 2003, definitely by 2004 and his keynote speech. So before he was a major figure and the howling started.
But I don't have a problem with him bringing it up, and I think that was an important thing for him to have done.