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FIRST-PERSON: The great miscalculation

WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–Perhaps the most significant result of post-election analyses thus far is the fact that the importance of moral issues has been grossly underestimated by the media and political pundits as well as by many of those running for elections and their campaigns. John Kerry’s quite apparent sidestepping of moral questions in the third and final presidential debate may well emerge as one of the most defining moments of this election.

As it stands, pundits, media and many of those in politics are still not getting the message. The questions that are beginning to be asked are: What can Democrats do to win another presidential election? How can they do better in the South? Should they shun candidates from the Northeast in future elections? Questions such as these miss a critical point: Candidates such as John Kerry are outside of the American mainstream on important social issues related to marriage and the family.

This is not just a matter of style but more importantly of substance. The American electorate does place a significant priority on social issues, and they will take notice when these are merely glossed over by political candidates. Partial birth and other forms of abortion, the definition of marriage and medical ethical issues such as embryonic stem cell research are not merely political issues, they are deeply personal and moral issues, and glib answers will not satisfy those who care about these matters.

Nor are these issues that will go away any time soon, or ever. They are part of the Judeo-Christian ethic that continues to form the primary framework for ethical discourse in this country and are ignored at the peril of those who are seeking political office. This is clearly recognized, among others, by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who has written several recent columns urging liberals to pay more attention to matters of faith in politics.

“Democrats peddle issues, and Republicans sell values,” he writes (“Living Poor, Voting Rich,” Nov. 3, 2004). Yet, as Kristof points out, one-third of Americans are evangelical Christians, many of whom perceive Democrats to be contemptuous of their faith. Bill Clinton and his advisers may have been right in the 1992 election when they popularized the slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid.” At least in this election, however, it may be more accurate to say, “It’s the moral fiber of America” that voters care deeply about.

Yet while Kristof is right in calling Democratic leaders to “shed their inhibitions about talking about faith,” I believe it is not merely a matter about “talking about faith,” but about holding the right values that resonate with the American mainstream, including evangelical Christian voters (see his column “God And Sex,” Oct. 23, 2004, which engages in extensive revisionism in interpreting the Bible in order to advocate a pro-gay agenda).

Is it just a coincidence that in the same election in which George Bush, not John Kerry, propagated values that he describes as favoring a “culture of life” and that encourage biblical, traditional values regarding marriage and the family also saw the passage of marriage amendments by mostly overwhelming margins in all 11 states in which they were on the ballot? How could anyone miss the connection?

I believe the next several weeks and months will see significant discussions centered around this very point: John Kerry and the Democrats lost the 2004 presidential election in large part because of “The Great Miscalculation,” which led them largely to avoid engaging important social and moral issues and to focus on the war in Iraq and domestic issues such as the economy or healthcare. The war in Iraq will be replaced by other issues in due course, but these great moral questions remain, and many, many people care deeply about them.

One more question: Why is it that John Edwards, a Southerner from North Carolina, made absolutely no difference in helping Kerry do well in the South? Because matters of faith are not merely a cultural but a moral issue, and Edwards (as well as Kerry) is outside of the mainstream of his own Southern culture, having aligned himself by and large with a liberal New England moral agenda and the prevailing ideology of the Democratic establishment while having lost his Southern cultural and religious moorings.

In the wake of the Democrats’ great miscalculation, I submit there are at least three lessons that will emerge as the abiding challenges of the 2004 presidential election. First, those seeking office in years to come must recognize the abiding importance of social and moral issues, especially those related to marriage and the family. Second, political candidates and parties must realize that it is inadequate to equivocate on these kinds of issues; actual positions matter, and people will not easily be swayed by rhetoric or evasion. Third, it is not merely enough to talk about issues of faith; candidates for office must carefully consider their position on social and moral issues and take positions that align them with the American mainstream.

Today, John Kerry, John Edwards and the Democratic Party are still in a state of massive denial and disbelief. How could they lose the 2004 election when the president was so vulnerable on Iraq and the economy? The reason they lost is due in large part to their great miscalculation: underestimating the moral fiber of the American people and the fact that it is not merely the war in Iraq and on terror and the economy that are personal issues, but also matters of faith — the definition of marriage, abortion and medical ethical issues. The sooner they get this message, the sooner they can begin to rebuild and address these issues that matter to a lot of people.
Andreas Kostenberger, a native of Austria, voted in his second U.S. presidential election after becoming an American citizen in 1999. He is the author of “God, Marriage & Family” (Crossway, 2004) and a professor of biblical studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.

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  • Andreas J. Kostenberger