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Democrats Still Don’t ‘Get It’ on Religion

After the 2004 election, many prominent Democrats agreed that they had to learn to talk the language of religion and show respect for religious voters if they were to broaden the party’s appeal. [IMGCAP(1)]

But the minute Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) signed on to participate in a religious-right rally against the Senate filibuster, prominent Democrats such as Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) flew into a rage.

Kerry declared before Frist had said a word that he would “appeal to religious division” and “invoke faith to rewrite Senate rules to put substandard, extremist judges on our bench.”

Reid said — also ahead of time — that Frist was a “radical” for agreeing to participate in the televised “Justice Sunday” rally, which billed the filibustering of President Bush’s judicial nominees as “against people of faith.”

As it turned out, Frist didn’t say a word about religion. He defended himself against the “radical” charge and promoted up-or-down Senate votes on judicial nominations.

But the level of outrage expressed by Democrats and various liberals over the rally could only lead religious conservatives to conclude that, despite their 2004 vows to respect people of faith, the Democrats still don’t get it.

Some liberal commentators, led by New York Times columnist Frank Rich, were contemptuous of the rally, its participants and, by implication, religious conservatives in general. Rich dubbed the rally “humbug,” dismissed participants as a “mob” and likened Frist to Sinclair Lewis’ 1920s evangelist phony, Elmer Gantry.

Liberal religious groups, including the National Council of Churches, also protested the rally. At a counter-rally, liberal evangelical Jim Wallis called it “a declaration of religious war” and “an attempt to hijack religion.”

Now, there’s no question that Democrats should object when some conservatives — House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), in particular — threaten the independence of the federal judiciary.

Democrats have not just a right but an obligation to stand up for their beliefs when conservatives try to limit abortion rights, enact anti-gay legislation, limit stem-cell research or ban the teaching of evolution. And they should oppose federal judicial nominees they deem “extremist,” although, instead of filibustering them on a routine basis, they should persuade a majority of the Senate to their side.

Whether they’re right or wrong, Democrats have had considerable success in raising questions about the fitness of Undersecretary of State John Bolton to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. If they defeat Bolton, it won’t be by filibuster. The system will have worked.

The best way to avoid the GOP-dictated “nuclear option” is for Senate Democrats to stand down from their own de facto rules change — their use of the filibuster — and fight Bush’s judicial nominees with debate.

For a tutorial on the role of religion in the judiciary and politics, Democratic Party leaders should have listened to a symposium called “Values and Legislation” held last week in the Capitol and sponsored by The Economist magazine (a corporate sibling of Roll Call) and Stanford University.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) noted that one of Bush’s appointees, Alabama Attorney General William Pryor, a Roman Catholic, was being opposed by Democrats for his “deeply held beliefs” against abortion — even though he ruled that the state’s late-term abortion law was unconstitutional.

“So, clearly,” Sessions said, Pryor “could follow the law even though he disagreed with it.” He implied that Democrats opposed Pryor because they disagreed with his religious views. “We can’t have a democracy with a religious test,” he said.

Sessions said that, with exceptions, it’s “totally bogus” that religious voters want to “impose their views on everybody.” Rather, “they feel disrespected and misunderstood, especially by the media.” And, they think that the courts are determined to “secularize America far beyond what the people want to do.”

In the last election, he said, Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, “seemed to say, ‘I am a religious person. I have religious values, but I am not going to let them impact what I do.’ President Bush said, ‘I have religious values. They are important to me and they help guide my decisions.’ It became a big deal in the election.”

Underlining the point, Economist correspondent Adrian Wooldridge said that, during the 2004 campaign, Bush got his best crowd response by declaring that “‘the Democratic Party believes that Hollywood people represent real American values.’ People went crazy. That’s why Republicans have a lock on the presidency.”

Wooldridge, co-author of the 2004 book “The Right Nation,” said that Democrats had three options for recovery. The “stupidest,” he said, was to “follow Frank Rich” — to “be the party of liberal values and denigrate the opposition. The party will basically be reduced, on that liberal fundamentalist strategy, to Manhattan and Manhattan Beach.”

A second strategy, advocated by Thomas Frank in his 2004 book “What’s Wrong with Kansas?,” is to “treat values as a distraction from the ‘real issues’ of economics and ‘who gets what.’”

Wooldridge said, “That’s wrong for two reasons. People care about God. They care about their faith. They just aren’t going to ignore values. And, values and material success actually go together. The single biggest predictor of poverty is the breakup of a marriage, for example.”

To succeed politically, this Brit suggested, “what Democrats need to do is occupy the middle ground. They need to put themselves on the side of ordinary families who are worried about the values of the country. The middle ground is there for the taking. The Democrats can move the opposition into the extreme. But unless they realize that moral values are essential to what makes America different, they are going to keep losing.”

Based on this recent performance, the Democrats are going to keep on losing. They haven’t proved that Bush’s nominees are extreme. They haven’t made the case that blocking filibusters is extreme. They said that participating in a religious rally was extreme. They just don’t get it.

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