Democrats and the God Gap

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

November 7, 2004

The transcripts show that John F. Kerry said the right things to connect with religion-minded voters, with his earnest speeches about God's work on Earth and invocations of faith and Scripture. Yet they landed with a thud on a populace conditioned to view liberal Democrats as faithless intellectuals.

No doubt Kerry's stiff New England style didn't help. This is not what religious faith looks like to much of the rest of the country, especially the South.

Yet one candidate's stiffness cannot fully explain the "God gap" that drives people of faith, and those more concerned with moral issues than economic ones, to vote disproportionately Republican. They just don't believe that the Democrats share their values. More than any other factor, this failure cost the Democrats the presidency and four Senate seats on Tuesday.

Democrats are getting free advice from all over. We do not agree with those who say the Democratic Party must embrace moral issues as now defined by conservatives and exploited by Republican strategists. Opposition to gay marriage and abortion rights will always be Republican issues, and the Democrats shouldn't want them.

What the Democrats should do is recast their own issues in moral terms. It shouldn't be hard. Democrats seem oblivious to their platform's moral potency: innocent children suffering because their families can't get health insurance; platoons of young men and women dying in a war that didn't have to be; the pillaging of God's green Earth. Those are "values" issues too, but the Democrats haven't figured out how to frame them that way.

Those voters who think liberals are godless monsters who care only about gay marriage and personal freedom are mostly decent, well-meaning people. Can it really be impossible to persuade them that they don't want to live in a country where 50 million people have no health insurance?

Democrats have the words, but they don't have the music — and the music matters. A good choir and a minister who can preach improve the attendance at any church. Nearly 85% of Americans say they consider religion important in their lives, and they're not all Bible-thumpers blocking the doors of abortion clinics.

Even among Democrats, 60% tell pollsters they pray each day. It is not cheating or a violation of the 14th Amendment to seek out and prefer candidates who speak the language of religious people. By no coincidence, the last two Democrats to win the presidency — Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton — were comfortable with spirituality. It's not a matter of pandering, but giving bread-and-butter issues a moral toehold in the political discourse.

Exit polls Tuesday showed more voters cast their ballots based on "moral values" than on Iraq, the war on terrorism or the shaky economy. Democrats risk becoming irrelevant if they continue to allow Republicans to define morality by using a handful of wedge issues to set up a phony "us against them" dichotomy.

Most Americans want the same things — effective schools, adequate healthcare, safe streets, equal opportunity. And they'll vote for someone who speaks to their hearts, not just their minds, and makes them believe those are shared ideals.