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It's no sin to have morality in politics

It was probably a good omen that the Iowa caucuses were held on Martin Luther King Day. The Rev. King may be one of the last public reminders that the word "religious" is not always followed by "right." And that not every faith-based political position is conservative.

This has been a strange season for those who follow politics religiously. The campaign has left Iowa for New Hampshire on a wing and a prayer. But there's been more overt questioning about the "prayer" than the wing.

Candidates have been asked how their faith affects their policy, and whether religion is just a Southern strategy. We've had the candidates' religions parsed and profiled and found most of them as ecumenical as Wesley Clark, born to a Jewish father, raised a Baptist, converted to Catholicism and now worshipping in a Presbyterian church.

On the Sunday before the caucuses, Howard Dean even went down to the Maranatha church in Plains, Ga., to win Jimmy Carter's blessing as a "fellow Christian." On the same day John Kerry prayed and politicked happily in a Waterloo church until a pastor described homosexuality as sin.

Meanwhile, over on the other wing, a Pew poll shows that people who attend church more than once a week vote Republican 63 to 37. A New York Times poll says that people who say religion is extremely or very important to them approve of Bush by a margin of 56 to 39. And Pat Robertson says God personally told him that "George Bush is going to win in a walk."

WWJD? What Would Jefferson Do? The third president literally cut and pasted his own Bible. About 90 percent of Americans have some kind of faith. But what is the essence of a faith-based political race in 2004?

The Rev. King notwithstanding, today conservatives have succeeded in redefining religion as their religion. And succeeded as well in defining morality as the province of religion.

George Lakoff, a linguist and author of Moral Politics, has traced the connections between faith, morals and politics. Throughout human history, he says, "Morality always came first in shaping religions."

But every religion from Christianity to Islam has a conservative and a liberal strain. If you use the metaphor of the nation as a family, says Lakoff, these two strains mirror two types of parenting.

One is what he calls the "strict father model," which assumes that children are born bad and have to be raised in a world that is dangerous and competitive. The other is the "nurturing parent model," which assumes children are born good and have to be raised to be better with empathy and responsibility to others.

The politics of the right rises out of the strict model, and the politics of the progressive left rises out of the nurturing model. Most of us, however, carry a portion of each model in our cultural DNA.

As for the difficulty the left has in linking religion, morality and politics? Lakoff, an adviser to more than one Democratic candidate, thinks liberals are tongue-tied. "If you ask most liberals, "what do you believe about morality?', they don't know what to say."

Because of this, we end up with "religious" debates about abortion or gay marriage or the Ten Commandments in the courthouse. But we don't have a moral vocabulary for discussing poverty or jobs or education.

Dean touched on this divide when he said that every time Republicans talked about "guns, God, gays" he would talk about health care and education. But he seems uncomfortable with religion, even ceding God to Republicans. Kerry, whose career began with a moral antiwar stance, is more at ease talking policy than morality. John Edwards, the one-man Southern strategy, also shies from the language as if avoiding a crack in the sidewalk between church and state.

Meanwhile the strict father in the White House colors his political speech _ though not his actions _ with the nurturing rhetoric of the ambivalent middle.

I confess that I too am uncomfortable with political preachers. The sounds of religion ring suspiciously in ears accustomed to hearing them from the far right. At the same time, I want to know that the man in the White House has a coherent moral framework that guides him and guides us.

The religious right wing has no monopoly on good people, let alone good politicians. But somewhere along the way it got a near-monopoly on the moral dictionary. A president doesn't have to be religious to be moral. You don't need to be godly to be good. But it's time that the politicians of the left took back the language of the rightand the wrong.

Ellen Goodman is a Boston Globe columnist.

Washington Post Writers Group