For Democratic Party activists basking in the deceptive warmth of those skewed early exit polls, winter came early this year. Expecting a Kerry landslide, George Soros, Michael Moore, and Teresa Heinz Kerry instead were buried in an unexpected election avalanche.
Despite a relentless propaganda campaign from CBS News and The New York Times (remember the forged documents and the trumped up non-story about the missing explosives in Iraq?), John F. Kerry still lost. Despite an unpopular war and more than 1,100 soldiers “coming home in body bags,” Bush improved his percentage in nearly every state.
Despite an uneven performance in debates against a more polished opponent, the president moved from a narrow loss in the popular vote in 2000 to a 3.5-million-vote majority in 2004. Despite all their natural advantages, the Democrats saw Republicans pick up seats in the House and Senate (including the defeat of South Dakota’s obstructionist Minority Leader, Tom Daschle, the first time in 50 years a Senate leader failed to win re-election).
In an era of war and wrenching economic dislocation, the issue that mattered the most was “moral values.” Yet people of faith were unimpressed with Roman Catholic John Kerry, who repeatedly reminded them he was a former altar boy. According to exit polls conducted for the Associated Press, George W. Bush won 78 percent of the white evangelical vote, 52 percent of the Roman Catholic vote, 57 percent of the Protestant vote, and 61 percent of the vote of people of all faiths who attend services at least weekly.
Liberals, needless to say, are in shock. They are also extremely angry. Guess who they’re blaming? (Hint: It’s not John Kerry.)
Normally level-headed Times columnist Tom Friedman said he is “deeply troubled.” “[W]hat troubled me yesterday was my feeling that this election was tipped because of an outpouring of support by people who don’t just favor different policies than I do–they favor a whole different kind of America. We don’t just disagree on what America should be doing; we disagree on what America is.”
“The president got re-elected by dividing the country along fault lines of fear, intolerance, ignorance and religious rule,” wrote fellow Times columnist Maureen Dowd. “… W. ran a jihad in America so he can fight one in Iraq–drawing a devoted flock of evangelicals … by opposing abortion, suffocating stem cell research and supporting a constitutional amendment against gay marriage.” (On stem cells, Bush has actually taken a moderate approach, opposing federal funding for research on new embryonic stem cells lines–which involves the destruction of innocent human life–while placing no restrictions on the more promising research based on stem cells from adults and umbilical cords.)
Historian Garry Wills linked the results with the 1925 Scopes trial, in which fundamentalist Christians, led by William Jennings Bryan, were discredited for their simplistic opposition to evolution, causing many to withdraw from the larger society. Wills called the vote “Bryan’s revenge,” asking, “Can a people that believes more fervently in the Virgin Birth than in evolution still be called an enlightened nation?”
Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State warned darkly, “The culture war may go nuclear,” because “millions of Americans oppose the theocratic agenda of the Religious Right.”
These commentators seek to paint the election as a secret rightwing coup of America’s unwashed masses engineered by Karl Rove. To the contrary, Bush’s 4-percentage-point, 31-state victory has rightly sparked talk of a mandate. Meanwhile, prohibitions against homosexual marriage won a clean sweep in all 11 states that held referenda. This includes Oregon–a liberal state taken by Kerry–with 57 percent.
One look at the county-by-county returns shows a nation (as in 2000) awash in red, with small blue outposts on both coasts and in the Upper Midwest. It is not the religious conservatives who are out of America’s mainstream, but the secular liberals, such as NARAL Pro-Choice America and the Human Rights Campaign. They have transformed the Democratic Party, traditionally strong on religious issues such as civil rights and concern for the poor, into a no-God zone. It is not conservatives, but they, who must move to the center.
Few if any nationally prominent Democrats are pro-life (although 40 percent of Democratic Party members are). They can’t afford to be. While John Kerry and Al Gore can say they are “personally opposed to abortion,” the activists who run the party will not tolerate actual votes to restrict it. Remember how they kept former Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey from the platform at the Democratic National Convention because of his opposition to abortion? So much for the party of tolerance and diversity!
During a radio talk show in Chicago right before the election, a caller who was a union man scolded a party operative because the Democrats had walked away from him on key issues. When the operative naively asked, “Which issues?,” the caller replied, “Abortion and gay marriage. Want me to go on?” The operative said those were “rightwing” concerns–thereby inviting many traditional Democrats to take their votes elsewhere. And they have. While mocking Christian values may be good sport, it is lousy politics.
If Democratic leaders don’t jettison their hostility to Judeo-Christian values, they risk being in the minority for the foreseeable future. It’s their decision, but time is short. Already core voters among blacks, Hispanics, and Jews are beginning to abandon them.
Some Democrats are courageous enough to admit that the problem is with them, not some “American Taliban.” Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun magazine said many liberals are “trapped in a long-standing disdain for religion and tone-deaf to the spiritual needs that underlie the move to the right.” Said Democratic Congressman Rahm Emmanuel, a former aide to Bill Clinton, “We need a nominee and a party that is comfortable with faith and values.” It’s about substance, though, not style. Visiting churches once every four years to troll for votes is not enough.
Some journalists are beginning to acknowledge their color-blindness, too. Last year Times columnist Nicholas Kristof admitted, “I can’t think of a single evangelical working for a major news organization.”
Legendary journalism guru Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, said that the “churched people” who supported Bush are “invisible” to him. Clark wonders whether “there is something fundamentally myopic about how I see the world.” There is.
Unfortunately, Nancy Pelosi, Al Franken, Dan Rather, and Bruce Springsteen seem to suffer from the same spiritual nearsightedness. It caused them to stumble unprepared into last Tuesday’s avalanche. Until Democratic Party leaders once again start to take seriously the concerns of people of faith, they can expect to be buried for a long time.