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Nov 8, 2004

Democrats and Moral Values?

Political pundits and others are scratching their heads in the wake of the November 2 presidential election, puzzled and perplexed that across the country more voters said "moral values" were the most important issue to them in deciding their presidential vote.

Even more significantly 80% of those "moral values" voters put their support behind President George W. Bush.

Stephen Monsma (above), a research fellow at the Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College, says the numbers should be causing some serious soul-searching for the Democratic Party. And should spur some changes to the party's platform.

"The Republicans," says Monsma, "now basically own the moral values issue. And as long as that is the case the Democrats are going to struggle, especially in presidential elections."

Monsma's perspective on the issue is an interesting one. He taught political science at Calvin from 1967-1974 and taught political science at Pepperdine University from 1987-2004.

In between he spent four years in the Michigan House of Representatives (1974-78) and four years in the Michigan Senate (1978-1982), representing Grand Rapids as a Democrat.

He says that he was able to exist in Lansing as a pro-life Democrat and an unabashed and unapologetic Christian. And, he adds, he was not an isolated case, recalling a mid-1970s state race for governor that pitted a pro-choice Republican against a pro-life Democrat.

Today's Democrats, says Monsma, need to take a page from those days.

And he recites three things the Dems could do immediately to at least move the moral values conversation back to their party.

The first, he says, is to look for the symbolic gestures that signal they respect people of faith.

"Can they talk about faith in meaningful ways," he asks, "and can they connect to faith groups - other than visiting a few churches in the last three weeks before an election. Will Democrats go to the National Association of Evangelicals convention? It seems incongruous to even ask the question but would (Hillary Rodham) Clinton speak to the National Association of Religious Broadcasters?"

Secondly, says Monsma, Democrats need to give a little on issues like gay marriage and abortion and school prayer.

"Faith based initiatives," he says, "struck me as a perfect place for the Democrats to be flexible. Instead they reacted as though Bush wanted to tear down the wall of separation between church and state. I think their reaction was an indication of how they have staked out the most extreme positions on many important moral values issues."

Finally, Monsma says, the Democratic Party needs to do a better job of saying what they are really for when it comes to moral values and other issues important to the American people.

"They've tended to define themselves," he says, "by being against what Bush is for. I think back to Democratic leaders like Roosevelt and Truman and they were very clear about what the Democrats were doing and what they stood for. Today's Dems aren't generating the ideas."

Monsma has written Working Faith: How Religious Organizations Provide Welfare-to-Work Services, The Challenge of Pluralism: Church and State in Five Democracies, When Sacred and Secular Mix: Religious Nonprofit Organizations and Public Money and Positive Neutrality: Letting Religious Freedom Ring.

He has been a Fellow at the Henry Institute at Calvin since summer 2004. The Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics was created in 1997 to continue the work of integrating Christian faith and politics advanced by its namesake, educator and public servant Paul B. Henry.

For more commentary from Monsma and others see:

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Phil de Haan
616-526-6475 (v)