WASHINGTON -- How would Jesus vote? That appears to be the great unspoken question as President Bush and Sen. John Kerry engage in a culture war for the hearts and minds of the elusive mainstream voter.
Livening up the midsummer pre-convention doldrums, Mr. Bush's campaign leveled a new charge at his Democratic challenger: exploitative use of Scripture. As he often has done in black churches, Mr. Kerry criticized "our present national leadership" in a St. Louis church recently by citing James 2:14: "What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?"
"When we look at what is happening in America today," Mr. Kerry said, "where are the works of compassion?"
A Bush campaign spokesman immediately accused Mr. Kerry's comments of being "beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse and a sad exploitation of Scripture for a political attack."
Mercy. Considering the level to which political discourse usually sinks in election years, that's a pretty strong charge. Why is Team Bush so touchy? Could it be because Mr. Kerry is boldly reaching out to cultural conservatives who the Bush-Cheney campaign would like to think are all theirs?
Why the sudden "values" hullabaloo? A valuable clue is offered in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll: Asked whether the statement "he shares your values" applies more to Mr. Bush or Mr. Kerry, 46 percent of those surveyed said Mr. Bush and 48 percent said Mr. Kerry. That's a statistical dead heat, which coincides with the polls that generally have shown a neck-and-neck race.
To the Bush camp's great annoyance, Mr. Kerry has not sounded all that "liberal" or irreverent to the folks in heartland America. Quite the contrary, as Bill Clinton did successfully in 1992, Mr. Kerry is going all out for the middle-America swing voters who are willing to lend him an ear.
In this deeply divided political year, I don't expect Mr. Kerry to win over many Rush Limbaugh Republicans, just as I don't expect Mr. Bush to win over many Al Franken Democrats.
But values matter in life and in politics. Mr. Clinton reached out by declaring a "New Covenant" between the public and the government and the private sector in 1992. He was denounced by conservative religious activists, just as the Bush team is now attacking Mr. Kerry. But while Mr. Clinton gave up the slogan, his message kept coming through to those swing voters who were looking for a president who sounded as if he was on their side.
Mr. Kerry could have a chance with the disappointed voters in the middle who have been leaning conservative but have not had much to show for it.
Values could be the key. One thing that often baffles liberal Democrats is how conservative values often trump pocketbook economic issues, even among those who might benefit the most from liberal economic ideas and social programs.
As Thomas Frank writes in his new book, What's the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, in places such as his rock-rib Republican state, people often vote against their economic and political interests as long as the candidate they like appears to share their values.
Mr. Frank found this to be particularly true on the issue of abortion, which galvanizes conservatives more than any other issue. Yet for all the political hoopla that abortion rights generate -- along with school prayer, display of the Ten Commandments on public property and indecency in movies, music and television -- what is most striking is how little headway social conservatives have made on any of them, Mr. Frank notes.
And at what cost? Working people in good conscience end up losing both the culture war and the so-called class wars. Conservative elites have persuaded the working poor to vote against health insurance, adequate retirement benefits, union organizing rights and antitrust laws, just to name a few pro-worker liberal reforms. The result has been a widening gap between blue-collar and white-collar America.
Of course, all of that could change with another victory for Team Bush.
Maybe this time conservatives will stop denouncing any mention of the rising gap between the haves and have-nots as class warfare.
Or maybe we will see a return of school prayer, the Ten Commandments on the town square, a ban on movies naughtier than PG-13 and a total ban on rump-shaking rock and rap videos on MTV and BET.
Sure. That could happen -- in my prayers.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun.