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Friday, November 5, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lance Dickie / Seattle Times editorial columnist

The new religious voice of America's public culture

Maybe Karl Rove is a genius. President George Bush's political adviser engineered a convincing victory Tuesday, one grounded in his boss's religious faith and following.

Rove was famously upset the religious right had not turned out for Bush in expected numbers during the 2000 election. This time, that vital part of the president's political base was courted and riled up with strategic intent by constitutional amendments banning gay marriage in 11 states.

Same-sex marriage, which touches an infinitesimal number of lives in this country, was a powerful symbol for voters from Arkansas to Ohio to Oregon and attracted votes across party, social and ethnic lines.

Here is the revelation for me this election. After three decades of cultural and religious struggle — including a fair amount of concerted, premeditated political exploitation — the religious right is more mainstream in America than once-mainline denominations.

This election confirms the influence and clout of those described by scholars as the socially conservative, theologically evangelical. They are our friends and neighbors, and unlike 18-to-29-year-olds, they vote in big numbers.

The United States may not be any more churched than it used to be, but the dominate forms of worship and spiritual expression look more like President Bush's Midland Men's Community Bible Study Group in Midland, Texas, than old-line Episcopalians on Sunday.

The new voice of public culture is rooted in personal spiritual experience focused on conversion and the bond of face-to-face relationships — people who share a belief the world is in very bad shape; Us & God against Them.

CNN reports exit polls found moral values topped terrorism, the economy and the war in Iraq as the election's most important issue. Those respondents backed the president by 80 percent. Bush bested Democratic challenger John Kerry by 22 points among regular churchgoers, and the president beat Kerry among those who share Kerry's Catholic faith.

These potent numbers spell a deep, abiding identity crisis for the Democratic Party, whose proud work in civil rights, fighting poverty and improvements for workers are relics of an abandoned, quaint community ethic.

Indeed, Democrats are seen as the amoral supporters of abortion, homosexuality, sex education, cultural decadence and activist judges. The shorthand is moral values, and the party is reeling.

Patricia O'Connell Killen, professor of religion at Pacific Lutheran University, raises a key point. The wedge issues in no way affect people's pocketbooks. Being against gay marriage is an identity marker among kindred souls that does not involve excessive personal burden, expense or change of behavior — unlike, say, confronting poverty or protecting the environment.

Religious authority moves to the individual, who becomes the arbiter of truth, Killen says.

I am fascinated and wary of how this plays out in the second Bush term. How does a theology rooted in me and mine weigh sacrifice for the greater good or find room for political compromise?

The president and his speechwriters are masters at slipping in spiritual winks and nods for the faithful. His mention during the presidential debates of Dred Scott — an 1857 Supreme Court slavery decision compared by abortion foes to Roe v. Wade — spoke volumes about future Supreme Court appointments, though it was coded so as not to deal with the topic head on.

I wonder how Bush's strong, active faith informs his view of the world and shapes his decisions on the job. Where does a faith-powered certainty of purpose cross the line into a stubbornness that precludes reassessments and changes of direction?

Before the war, was he worried about Iraq or thinking of biblical Babylon? Does an apocalyptic battle on the Plains of Armageddon and the conversion of Israel enter into his Middle East policy?

The president does not preside over a Christian theocracy. He is the leader of believers and nonbelievers. He leads a land rich with churches, temples and mosques. Brand-specific piety betrays the broad and stabilizing values of this country.

Let faith-based initiatives stand apart from the government.

In a world bloody with religious rivalry and hatred, how can the virtue and tradition of separating church and state not be respected?

I fear a pinched and politicized definition of moral values that does not encompass ethical leadership, economic justice and mutual sacrifice, judicious use of military might and environmental stewardship that tempers a sense of dominion over nature.

If Karl Rove's brand of genius only pushes the nation further in that direction, I am destined to be left behind.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is ldickie@seattletimes.com. Look for more of his thoughts on the STOP blog, our editorial online journal, at www.seattletimes.com/stop

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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