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Issue Date:  December 17, 2004

Openings on values front

The religious right senses opportunity as a result of the presidential election. As well they should. Their guy won and he did so (whatever one makes of the debate about the accuracy of the exit poll which showed “moral values” trumping all other issues) with strong support from the religious right’s constituents.

The religious right puts a priority on the appointment of judges who will vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, and on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. We suspect they will be disappointed on both counts -- that President Bush will choose to spend his fabled political capital on such things as privatizing Social Security and foreign adventurism rather than on the social questions that could expose fissures within the Republican Party. But, again, they won and they are entitled to give it their best shot.

That said, the religious left also sees an opening. All this talk of “moral values” has led some in the Democratic Party to seek out the wisdom of those whose ministries to the poor and disenfranchised are inherently political. To their credit, some Democratic leaders see the party’s failure to connect with voters who are unabashedly religious (though not necessarily politically aligned) as an ongoing problem. To automatically cede the vote of those who go to church each Sunday to the other party is hardly a recipe for electoral success. In the last 10 elections, the two victorious Democrats, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, had an ease with religion and understood people of faith. A coincidence? We don’t think so.

What has become clear is that politicians and political parties ignore at their peril the concerns of religious voters. Some Democrats may be uncomfortable with God talk and religious values, but as the report by Washington correspondent Joe Feuerherd shows, not a few Democrats who also consider themselves religious believe the recent election serves as a wake up call for a party that doesn’t “speak a language that resonates with people of faith,” according to Shaun Casey, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary. He said those who early in the 2004 election cycle argued that the Democrats had to fashion a message that would reach people of faith were vindicated by the election results. He’s correct.

Some advice for the Democrats: Find some room, and give some respect, to those who hold “traditional values.” Talk about abortion, for example, and describe what plans you have to reduce what is now the most commonly performed surgical procedure in the country. No one expects the national Democratic Party to favor overturning Roe, but there must be room in the party for those who share the ambivalence most Americans feel about the issue.

Republicans, especially the Christian right, should expand their priorities to include the full Gospel message. Grapple with the tough issues -- such as the fact that the abortion rate decreases when government assistance that provides genuine choice to a woman in a crisis pregnancy is made available. Avoid the boilerplate knee-jerk responses and use your leverage within the Republican Party to make reducing the abortion rate at least as important as reducing the capital gains rate. What’s more important, the commitment to “smaller government” or the life of the unborn child?

There is a constructive model for this. Some of Congress’ most conservative members -- Sens. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) -- led the fight for funding to battle AIDS in Africa. That’s a “moral value” most Americans share -- and one that should be replicated in other areas.

It’s naive to think that even the power of Christian faith is strong enough to overcome all the partisan and ideological divisions in our political culture. Just maybe, however, it can lead people of goodwill toward a fuller appreciation of what the common good is, and how we might begin to serve it.

National Catholic Reporter, December 17, 2004

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