- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 1, 2005

One of the strategic political subtexts in the Senate battle over federal judgeships is the role courts often play in deciding moral and religious disputes.

Conservative advocates fighting to restore the right to a simple up-or-down majority vote on judicial nominees see their opponents as hostile to people of faith and deeply held conservative values. Most, if not all, of the Bush nominees denied a vote by Democrats, easily fit this description.

“We see this as a defensive action in response to a growing antagonism toward nominees who happen to be conservative in their judicial philosophy and devout churchgoing Christians,” said Jayd Henricks, spokesman for the Family Research Council, a key player in the Senate rules fight.

Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, see this as a fight between “radical right leaders who suggest that you can’t be a good Christian unless you share their political views,” said Ralph Neas, president for the People for the American Way.

Both sides, too, play the religious and cultural cards in the ad wars on TV airwaves. The Judicial Confirmation Network, a coalition of conservative and religious groups, attacks judges who “want God out of the Pledge of Allegiance” and have ruled “child pornography is protected by the Constitution.” On the other hand, People for the American Way ads say religious conservatives are “manipulating religion for political gain.”

Cynics may say both sides play religious and moral issues for political advantage, but cultural and moral concerns have become a major issue that cuts across every political line. Democrats rarely talk about these issues and that has hurt their party, threatening to drive its long decline deeper. Who says so? The Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), the policy analysis arm of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

In a little-noted study released last month, PPI said Democrats suffer a growing “parent gap” among people with children, who believe the entertainment industry and other cultural forces are debasing the moral standards of the country.

It admonished Democrats for not paying attention to parental concerns about “morally corrosive forces in the culture,” and warned their party will continue losing the parent vote if they do not vigorously address parents’ concerns.

Last year, married parents backed President Bush over Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry by nearly 20 percentage points. The reason: Mr. Bush talked about the importance of faith and morals in his campaign, and the critical role of parents in raising their children. Mr. Kerry and his party, with much campaign funding and political support from entertainment-industry liberals, rarely touched the issue.

“Democrats will not do better with married parents until they recognize one simple truth: Parents have a beef with popular culture,” said the study’s author, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, a PPI senior fellow and co-director of the National Marriage Project of Rutgers University. “As they see it, the culture is getting more violent, materialistic and misogynistic, and they are losing their ability to protect their kids from morally corrosive images and messages.

“To be credible, Democrats must acknowledge the legitimacy of parents’ beef and make it unmistakably clear that they are on the parents’ side,” she wrote.

But the party’s dominant knee-jerk liberal wing all too often prevents it from addressing the country’s legitimate cultural concerns and the difficulty parents face against the pervasive marketing of graphic sex and violence to their kids.

“Democrats have been on the losing side of Republican appeals to a conservative cultural populism,” Mrs. Whitehead said. “Too often, lately, the party does not counter these appeals but merely tries to change the subject from cultural values to bread-and-butter issues.”

She wants Democrats to change how they deal with cultural issues and to “use the bully pulpit regularly and aggressively” to champion concerns of parents against sleaze marketers.

But a Pew poll last month found such culturally conservative, faith-based appeals may not play well with liberal Democrats, particularly those who support party chairman Howard Dean.

Among Pew’s findings: 38 percent of Dean supporters said they had no religious affiliation, compared with 11 percent of all Americans; 91 percent supported same-sex “marriage,” compared to 38 percent of all Democrats; and 80 percent said they were liberals, compared with 27 percent of all Democrats.

These are among the treacherous political divisions distancing Democrats from bedrock, faith-based moral and cultural issues troubling voters in every region. They are also, largely, at the heart of the battle over what kind of judges will rule on them.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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