I’ve taken a few days off, enjoying perfect weather in the Rockies and reading of the Democrats’ gnashing of teeth and the GOP’s moral superiority.  There was an exchange in the comments section of an earlier post with one conservative’s claim that those of us on the left are condescending.  And while there is an element of truth to that charge, it does surprise me that someone abhors condescension but applauds those who reflect deceit, arrogance and intolerance. 

The discussion about "moral values" is this week’s easy story line written by journalists who are responding to conservative’s PR push that this election was all about morals — and that the only ones who have them are the Christians who seem to care only about homosexuality and abortion.  Indeed, there are those that do:

Asked if their rivals on the left indeed held viable moral values, several conservatives replied with a qualified "yes," suggesting the liberals’ social concerns were valid but not as important as opposition to abortion or same-sex marriage.

"We believe in biblical principles; I’m sure they believe in biblical principles," said Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition of America. "But I don’t understand how they can defend abortion and homosexuality. That’s wrong."

The Rev. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life said poverty was far less urgent a problem then abortion, which he considers genocide.

…Some put the issue even more starkly.

"There is no reconciliation between good and evil," wrote Mary Ann Kreitzer of Les Femmes, an organization of conservative Roman Catholic women. "Voters rejected the party of gay activists, radical feminists, the Hollywood elite, pornographers, death-peddlers, anti-Christian bigots and apostate Catholics."

These are the Christians who think they own the franchise.  No wonder Tom Friedman wrote:

…[W]hat troubled me yesterday was my feeling that this election was tipped because of an outpouring of support for George Bush 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.

…My problem with the Christian fundamentalists supporting Mr. Bush is not their spiritual energy or the fact that I am of a different faith. It is the way in which he and they have used that religious energy to promote divisions and intolerance at home and abroad. I respect that moral energy, but wish that Democrats could find a way to tap it for different ends. 

I do, too.  Because while I surely must sound intolerant of Christians to some, it’s only my own "inartfulness."  Earlier I wrote "I can only judge by the conservatives I know. They are not bigoted, selfish or hypocritical, just misguided."  Well, that’s not quite right.  I’m placing bets that most Christians, including the ones I know,  are also not misguided.  It is those that cite their religion as the basis for supporting bad policies that are misguided. 

But I wouldn’t want the conversation to focus on what Christianity means.  Unfortunately, I don’t think politicians have that choice right now.  They must address their religious beliefs, if only because not doing so is corrupted by Republicans as being anti-faith or anti-Christian. 

Democrats must hear the voice of progressive Christians – those who see the disconnect between the religious  right and social policy.  I can’t see how aborting a fetus we don’t know has a soul is immoral but letting 25 million children who do live in poverty isn’t. 

Anyone who isn’t a member of the antiabortion, anti-gay-rights, fundamentalist right is categorized — or caricatured — as someone who checked her values 100 yards from the polling booth.

Well, speaking for the designated "immoral minority," there are a whole lot of folks who believe that starting a preemptive war on false premises is a moral issue. There are a whole lot of people who believe that giving tax cuts to the rich and a deficit to the grandkids is a matter of values.

…The blue candidates will never convert people who believe that homosexuality is a sin, or that the fertilized egg is a human being, or that evolution is a scam taught by secular humanists. But among the not-so-red voters are those who believe in legal protection for gay couples, who value a child with diabetes over a frozen embryo in a fertility clinic. They regard poverty as a moral issue and tolerance as an American value. They don’t want their country racked by the fundamentalist religious wars we see across the world. And they need to hear the moral framework for these views.

Still, the challenge for Democrats is to find a moral voice without tearing down the walls between our secular government and widely divergent religious beliefs in this country. The moralists want not their morals but their religion to dominate.

…"[V]alues voters" who helped keep [Bush] in Washington believe that God needs to be more present in public life. The Ten Commandments in the courtroom, prayer in school, "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance – these are all critical issues to many religious conservatives. They believe that we’ve kicked out God from our lives.

In other words, many religious voters also love Mr. Bush for reasons broader, more vague – and in some ways far more powerful – than merely his positions on specific issues like gay marriages. The professional activists, by contrast, have a very concrete agenda in mind: constitutional amendments on gay marriage and abortion, allowing churches to become more politically active, allowing more prayer in school and more.

What do we teach our children if we tell them in church that God wants them to vote a certain way?  Which prayer in school do we allow?  Or do we spend the hour of class reciting prayers from every religion?

The danger is that if we allow religion a more prominent role in our government at what point does it become a theocracy that is intolerant of minorities?  (I think that has happened elsewhere.)

Even thoughtful conservatives think "moral values" is a red herring caught by the press after an inarticulate poll cited it as a prevailing reason Bush won.   

As Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center points out, there was no disproportionate surge in the evangelical vote this year. Evangelicals made up the same share of the electorate this year as they did in 2000. There was no increase in the percentage of voters who are pro-life. Sixteen percent of voters said abortions should be illegal in all circumstances. There was no increase in the percentage of voters who say they pray daily.

It’s true that Bush did get a few more evangelicals to vote Republican, but Kohut, whose final poll nailed the election result dead-on, reminds us that public opinion on gay issues over all has been moving leftward over the years. Majorities oppose gay marriage, but in the exit polls Tuesday, 25 percent of the voters supported gay marriage and 35 percent of voters supported civil unions. There is a big middle on gay rights issues, as there is on most social issues. 

How do we attract that moral majority that is also tolerant, understanding and wishes religion to remain in its proper, private place?

First, we admit to one of the main contentions of many Americans:  We have become a more coarse society.  And some of Democrats’ best friends facilitate it.  Entertainment executives excuse some of the crap they produce by invoking the first amendment.  It’s such an patent lie.  They produce it to make money, not a political point.  They say they support Democrats because they want a more compassionate agenda at the same time they corrupt the morals of impressionable youth for a buck.  I suspect that many Bush voters see gay marriage as less of an issue than the portrayal of sexual mores on TV.  Much of TV fare is sexually sophomoric, but that’s lost on sophomores, much less younger kids.  Someone – and it might has well be Democrats – needs to challenge Hollywood.  I will defend Eminen’s right to stand atop a soap box in front of the White House to rap ad nauseum.  But if someone is making a buck off of it, they are culpable. 

(That said, the coarse language, not to mention war profiteering, of Dick Cheney is no impediment to his re-election.  But that that is lost on right-wingers must remain a little hypocrisy that’s useless to rail against.)

There is a moral center Democrats can appeal to.  They are the tolerant Christians, Muslims, Jews and atheists; they’re those who can hold a personal abhorrence of abortion and gay marriage but recognize that the former is complicated by social policies and the latter is irrelevant to them.  Gays aren’t going to change your daughter’s sexuality, but having been taught about the consequences of irresponsible sexuality and having options in life worth pursuing can mitigate the number of unwanted pregnancies.  But making someone bear a child that cannot be cared for either by the individual or the government is immoral.  If you want to reduce the number of abortions, reduce poverty and ignorance.  If the righteous would focus their energy there, abortions would decline.

Still, Democrats wander aimlessly on the morals issue, afraid to offend. The progressively religious have no one to follow and no one who reflects their moral bearings.  In fact, Democrats espouse moral bearings but do so tenuously.  They’re afraid to preach both compassion and responsibility.  What’s behind the GOP’s "personal responsibility" theme is an attack on the defenseless.  Much of GOP’s agenda seems to reflect an attitude of take responsibility or die.  If a welfare mother refuses to work or avoid pregnancy, the GOP is willing to sacrifice the children.  That is immoral.

Twenty years from now, we’ll have gay marriages, or at least gay civil unions, with all the legal protections enjoyed by bi-racial couples.  But will we have a progressive morality or intolerant and myopic demagoguery that exploits the latest bogeyman? 

The answer may not determine our president.  After all, Bush’s margin was thin.  There are other issues that might turn elections.  Democrats needn’t worry that their religion will determine if they win again.  But the need for a discussion of morals is necessary, if only to help us agree "on what America is."

Update:  Kevin Drum has a good post on the morals issue.