NEW YORK — They still don't get it. If you want to see why Democrats keep losing national elections, look no further than the most recent controversy over President Bush's judicial nominations.
GOP majority leader Bill Frist will participate this Sunday in a conservative Christian telecast that denounces Democrats for threatening to filibuster the nominations. "The filibuster was once abused to protect racial bias," declared the Family Research Council, which is sponsoring the telecast, "and it is now being used against people of faith."
And the Democrats' response? "I cannot imagine that God ... is going to take the time to debate the filibuster in heaven," Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois said Friday, denouncing Senator Frist for lending his name to the campaign. "God does not take part in partisan politics," echoed Senate minority leader Harry Reid.
That's bad history, and even worse politics. Every great movement for social justice in America has been powered by religious sentiment. Instead of demanding that conservatives omit religion from politics, liberals should reclaim the religious mantle themselves.
Start with the battle against slavery in the early 1800s. "I accuse the land of my nativity of insulting the majesty of Heaven with the grossest mockery that was ever exhibited to man," thundered William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist. Slavery wasn't simply "unfair" or "inequitable," terms of choice of today's Democrats. It was an iniquity, a sin against God.
So was the brutal exploitation of American laborers after the Civil War, when robber barons piled up millions of dollars in profit while workers languished in poverty. That's why the United Mine Workers Journal cited the Bible in an 1894 attack on greedy mine operators. "What was right in the time of Moses, Mordecai and Ehud will be right forever," the UMW raged. "God shall save the children of the needy, and shall break into pieces the oppressor."
At the 1912 convention of the Progressive Party, which endorsed women's suffrage and a federal income tax, delegates sang "Onward Christian soldiers." During the Depression, Democrats routinely cited the Sermon on the Mount - "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" - on behalf of welfare relief and other New Deal measures. Christian rhetoric suffused the African-American civil rights struggle after World War II. "If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong!" Martin Luther King, Jr. declared in 1955. "If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to earth." To King, segregation and racial injustice weren't simply bad "policy," to borrow another favorite Democratic aphorism. They were base, evil, and sinful: an abomination against God as well as against man.
Back then, remember, it was King's opponents who argued that religion didn't belong in politics. "Preachers are not called to be politicians but soul winners," cautioned Jerry Falwell in 1965, condemning King and other ministers for their civil rights activism. "Nowhere are we commissioned to reform the externals. The gospel does not clean up the outside but regenerates the inside."
During the next decade, Mr. Falwell would shift course and lead religious conservatives into politics. At the same time, political liberals abandoned their religious appeals. So now, Republicans say that God is on their side, while Democrats say that God doesn't take sides.
And that's why the Republicans keep winning. We live in the most devout wealthy democracy on the face of the earth. You might celebrate that fact, you might deplore it, but you cannot deny it. For a policy to be right or wrong, there must be a reason. And for the vast majority of Americans, that reason will involve their faith.
Instead of telling Republicans to leave their religion out of the judicial nomination battle, then, the Democrats should challenge the nominations on religious grounds. One of the nominees, Janice Rogers Brown, has suggested that minimum-wage laws might be unconstitutional; a second one, William G. Myers III, has cast doubt upon the constitutionality of the Endangered Species and Clean Water acts. All of these federal regulations interfere with the "right to property," you see, which these jurists view as sacrosanct.
But there's another view, derived from Scripture itself, that says they're wrong; that poverty and pollution - like slavery - insult the majesty of Heaven; that God shall save the children of the needy; that the meek shall inherit the earth; and that Jesus was more than a utopian dreamer. It says that the Lord wants us to share our wealth, and to care for each other.
And if the Democrats can't bring themselves to say that, God save us all.
• Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of 'Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools.'