IN THE PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE on domestic issues, CBS newsman Bob Schieffer asked one of the best questions of all three forums: Do you think homosexuality is a choice?

The true merit of the question was lost in the subsequent hubbub over Sen. John Kerry's reference to Dick Cheney's daughter's sexuality. A gasp was heard round the nation as viewers recoiled. The majority of people polled thought Kerry's response was inappropriate. Maybe they weren't sure why, but Miss Manners could provide an answer: It's bad form for someone to exploit a highly personal issue involving your kid to try to score points against you.

For that reason, Kerry's answer became the focus of the punditry and the deeper meaning of the question was obscured.

If Schieffer had merely asked the candidates' positions on gay marriage, he would have received the usual barrage of talking points from each man. And, the candidates did, in fact, resort to those talking points as the discussion unfolded.

For a moment, though, Schieffer sought to uncover the underlying thought process behind the talking points. He sought out the "why," not just the "how" or "what."

If Schieffer's question was insightful, President Bush's answer was refreshingly frank. "I don't know," he responded.

Chances are if you asked most Americans the same question, they'd respond in the same way. And therein lies at least part of the answer to why Republicans are winning in the values department. They are now the party of the "I don't know" crowd, the people who are concerned about moral issues and haven't yet taken absolutist positions, but aren't comfortable with an absolutist group forcing moral fiats down their throats.

Evangelical Christians, who turned out strong for Bush this year, do not make up a majority. In fact, they don't make up enough of a majority to pass gay marriage bans in 11 states. To do that, you need the votes of people who are believers--in some sense of the word--but who are more likely to be uncomfortable with absolutist moral approaches in general. Including those of the left.

It's ironic, isn't it? The left is made up of scores of people ready to paint Bush and Republicans with the "moral extremist" label. "Bush's victory signals the triumph of belief over fact," Garry Wills moaned in the New York Times two days after the election. He sees the election in stark terms--the victory of fundamentalism over reason. In other words, if you don't share Wills's values and voted for Bush, you're stupid.

Maureen Dowd claimed the president "ran a jihad" in America--"jihad" is a word Wills used as well. And columnist Thomas Friedman wondered if he lives in a country where religion trumps science, lamenting that the Americans who voted for Bush have a different vision of what America is.

AND PERHAPS there's some truth in that claim. Maybe the Americans who voted for Bush have doubts about whether homosexuality is a choice and don't want to rush to change sexual-bond institutions that have benefited society for centuries because of an extremist agenda that implies either you're for gay marriage or you're a bigot.

Maybe the Americans who voted for Bush have questions about when life really begins and don't want to support a party that refuses to acknowledge those concerns.

Maybe the Americans who voted for Bush wonder just how much involvement between church and state constitutes an infringement on First Amendment proscriptions against state-sponsored religion. Maybe they are troubled by absolutists who want to wipe faith out of every aspect of public life.

THESE DOUBTS and concerns don't make them stupid or intolerant or bigoted or faith-based zealots ready to wage a jihad against those who disagree with them. It makes them average Americans. When Bush acknowledged his own doubts about the homosexuality question, he was speaking to them, telling them they don't deserve the ugly labels absolutists from the left use to denigrate their concerns. He was legitimizing their reasonable doubts about the left's absolutist ideology on values--gay marriage, unrestricted abortion, and an approach to state/church issues that more resembles the intolerance of anti-religion China than the tolerance of state-sponsored-religion England.

In other words, in the moral values debate, perhaps the Republican voters saw the left as the fundamentalists waging their own jihad, unwilling to acknowledge reasonable differences of opinions, let alone well-motivated doubts.

If Democrats are to regain the moral-values crowd, they don't need to pander to the devout with photo ops at church services and well-timed references to the Almighty. They don't even need to be particularly religious. They just have to learn to humbly acknowledge that moral issues are thorny and require thoughtful consideration. And they have to respect the opinions and doubts of others.

Libby Sternberg is executive director of Vermonters for Better Education and author of the Edgar-nominated Uncovering Sadie's Secrets. Its sequel, Finding The Forger, will be published later this month. Also, her novel Loves Me, Loves Me Not (written under the name Libby Malin) will be published by Red Dress Ink in October 2005.

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