As America continues to sort out the meaning of the November 2 elections, there is a growing consensus that evangelicals and traditional values-minded voters carried the day.
For liberals who have spent the last four decades widening the so-called separation of church and state into a chasm, that is a scary thought. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman fretted, “We don’t just disagree on what America should be doing; we disagree on what America is.”
But the more pragmatic among them recognize the brute fact that there are far more Christians in this country than secularists. Despite unquestioning support in the mainstream media and academia, Democrats can forget about returning to majority party status as long as they treat Christians as the ugly stepchild. Are the Democrats getting religion?
“It’s important for Democrats to be able to connect with people where they live,” says Barack Obama, the newest liberal senator from Illinois. “We should be able to engage and willing to engage in discussion about morality and values.”
New York Senator Hillary Clinton, the former first lady and a possible Democratic Party candidate for the presidency, saw her husband connect with Christians. “I don’t think you can win an election or even run a successful campaign if you don’t acknowledge what is important to people,” she said last week in a speech at Tufts University. “We don’t have to agree with them, but being ignored is such a sign of disrespect, and therefore I think we should talk about these issues.”
Hillary said Democrats should use the Bible when discussing issues such as poverty. Robert Edgar, the head of the liberal National Council of Churches and a reliable Democrat, says much the same.
“The religious right has successfully gotten out there shaping personal piety issues–civil unions, abortion–as almost the total content of ‘moral values,’” Edgar said. “And yet you can’t read the Old Testament without knowing God was concerned about the environment, war and peace, poverty. God doesn’t want 45 million Americans without health care.”
Aside from the fact that there are almost no Americans without health care (because even the uninsured in this country get treatment), it appears that the Democratic leaders want to take on evangelicals on their home turf. As John Kerry would say, “Bring it on.”
Meanwhile, evangelicals and others concerned with traditional moral values are sorting out the implications of being political insiders with a seat at the table. This newfound responsibility can be disorienting, and, contrary to popular misconception, evangelicals are not a monolithic group.
Some, like James Dobson of Focus on the Family, have already warned the Bush administration that they will withdraw their support from the Republicans if they do not see action on a specific list of issues. While Dobson’s threat is understandable (after all, Christians who don’t see any good result for all their grassroots mobilization will not be enthused about turning out the next time), such a bald statement of political power is not likely to sit well with people already suspicious of our intentions.
Others fear limiting ourselves to such a quid pro quo relationship with Caesar. Says Charles Colson, a former Watergate insider who now heads Prison Fellowship, “I disassociate myself from anyone who says, ‘Now we voted for you, it’s payback time. Give us our due.’ That’s what special interest groups do, and we’re not a special interest group. We vote our conscience and what we believe is in the best general interest.”
That said, evangelicals face a tremendous opportunity to influence American society for the good. What follows is not an ultimatum, but a wish list, not only for evangelicals, but also for the country. (I acknowledge my debt to author James Jewell and Robert Andringa, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, who have already circulated their own lists. The one below, however, is my own.)
1. Supreme Court. Christians have a right to expect President Bush to keep his campaign promise to nominate conservative jurists to the nation’s highest court, judges who will interpret–not invent–the law. With observers expecting as many as three or four high court vacancies during Bush’s second term, and given the Democrats’ past stonewalling many Bush nominees to lower federal courts, this is a critical time to rein in liberal judges on issues such as abortion and homosexual marriage.
2. Culture of Life. Besides working with the majority of Americans who would like to see some commonsense restrictions on abortion (including partial birth abortion and parental notification), Christians should help make the president’s commitment to building “a culture of life” a reality. That means increasing funding for tools such as ultrasound machines (which clearly show moms and dads the humanity of the unborn) and supporting public and private abstinence campaigns (which have been proven to curtail the spread of AIDS and delay the onset of sexual activity). We also support adoption, believing that government should remove the barriers that make it so difficult.
3. War on Terror. Christians and all Americans should expect the administration to continue going after terrorists here and abroad to keep America safe. But as disciples of the Prince of Peace, we need to push the Bush team to pursue war as a last resort, only after peaceful options (as in Iraq) have failed. We need to stay in Iraq until that country’s citizens have a stable democracy. We hope war can be avoided in Iran and North Korea, two outlaw states pursuing nuclear weapons and with known ties to terrorists. Christians also need to scrutinize any attempts to curtail the civil liberties of law-abiding citizens.
4. Religious Freedom. In recent years Christians have taken a leading role in support of religious liberty and human rights worldwide, through prayer networks, advocacy via groups such as the World Evangelical Alliance, and participation in bodies such as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. We have seen substantial legislative progress regarding Sudan and North Korea. The Bush administration must be continually reminded that religious liberty, both here and abroad, is the first freedom.
5. Marriage. To stop an expected flurry of lawsuits seeking to force the states to recognize gay “marriages” performed in other states via the Constitution’s Full Faith and Credit clause, we support the Federal Marriage Amendment. The FMA allows the people of each state, rather than judges, to have the final say in this pivotal social issue. Recognizing the nation’s critical need for strong marriages, we also support efforts to strengthen the family, including covenant marriages, premarital counseling, and stronger enforcement of child support.
6. The Poor. Recognizing that robbing the rich to pay the poor hasn’t worked, we are suspicious of government welfare schemes. We support welfare reform that links benefits with work and that provides job and life skills training that enable people to find employment. We support both educational reform that links funding with higher standards, as well as vouchers that allow poor parents to take their kids out of failing schools to the private or religious schools of their choice. We support President Bush’s faith-based initiative to allow religious groups that effectively bring help and hope to their communities to have a fair shot at federal money.
7. Energy and the Environment. Believing that we are stewards and not owners of God’s creation, Christians support developing the earth’s resources for the common good while being careful not to waste or destroy them. We also think that in today’s world careful use of existing supplies of oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear power is a good way to lessen our dependence on foreign sources of energy while keeping prices down.
8. Medicine. To bring down health costs and encourage more people to buy insurance, we support giving people more access to health savings accounts. We do not support nationalized health insurance, believing this will drive up costs and worsen service. We support tort reform, believing that frivolous lawsuits drive up costs and force competent physicians who cannot afford their malpractice premiums out of business. We also support removing unnecessary government barriers that slow down the approval process for life-saving drugs and that have made obtaining flu shots so difficult.
9. Taxes and Spending. We believe the American people have a right to the money they have earned and know best how to save, invest, and spend it. Taxes should be low and easy to understand. Low taxes also have the virtues of discouraging unneeded and wasteful government spending while encouraging entrepreneurship and job creation. The tax code should encourage behaviors that strengthen the society, such as marriage, parenthood, charitable giving, and home ownership. The government, except in times of national emergency, should live within its means. Among other things, this means we must reform Social Security and Medicare so they will be available for future generations.
10. Public Decency. Seeking to promote a culture of kindness and respect as we raise the next generation, we support stricter enforcement of broadcast decency standards and renewed prosecutions of obscenity.
The Democrats say they need to open lines of communication with evangelicals. Are they sincere? Let’s find out. As Kerry said more than once during the campaign, words must be accompanied by deeds.
As Christians pursue these or other agenda items, we need to treat both friend and foe with respect and humility, seeking common ground wherever possible. Republicans and Democrats who engage us on these issues should give us a fair hearing–and expect one in return.