That New-Time Religion

My Fellow Democrats,

The tears have dried, the postmortems have been laid to rest, the Zoloft prescriptions have been refilled, the property listings in Canada/Ireland/Costa Rica/Paris/ Prague/Auckland are in the wastebasket. Now that everyone's come back to earth, let me say this: For the third time in four years, the party I am honored to lead has won a great victory. A victory of principle. And with victory comes the question immortalized by the end of that great Democratic movie The Candidate: Now what do we do?

I have prayed about this, and one thing we must do, according to my Lord and Savior, is get religion. That's not to say that Democrats aren't religious. In the past they've embraced just about any religion, however loopy, so long as it wasn't Christianity. That has to change. What we need now is Christian religion. More specifically, Evangelico-Baptist premillenialist fundamentalism.

The majority party is a party of principle, but that doesn't mean it's afraid to move on from outdated principles.

For the past four years, the Democratic leadership has taken the courageous path of cooperating with our Republican colleagues to temper the extremism of the White House and its allies. Why courageous? Because it has often seemed to the rank and file that we weren't much better than Republicans -- moderate Republicans, natch, but sure as beans not Democrats. Still, I believe that working with the other side on, for instance, tax cuts and Iraq has borne abundant fruit. The tax cuts are not yet permanent, and we're only at war in one country. That's a pretty damn good record.

But I'm the first to acknowledge that on November 2 a seismic shift took place. And just as we did after our 2000 and 2002 victories, we have to shift again.

Democrats must make a massive outreach to the exciting new American center, those good folks who sincerely believe that all material things were created on Monday, October 22, 4004 B.C., and that, unless they are washed in the blood of the lamb, people of color are the spawn of Satan.

The question I have for all thinking Democrats is, what's so crazy about that? These are reasonable, centrist Americans, aren't they? They can be born again to our Democratic faith if we just make the effort. It's less a question of moving toward the right than of moving a tad further away from the left. We need to find a third way between moderate Republicanism and stark raving mad neo-Confederate anarchism.

Some prayerful thoughts on new policy directions:

Creative Creationism. Is creationism so all-fire nuts? I go back to my days at the Catholic University of America and ask a scholastic question: If super dense matter the size of a baseball exploded into the universe during the big bang, who made the baseball?

Prima causa, dear brethren. The Big Guy.

Creationists have got a point. Why not meet them halfway? Only academic double-domes really care about any species before those cute dinosaurs. Here's the deal: Everything before the Jurassic, created in one Judeo-Christian workweek. Everything after, as per Darwin. Fair enough?

The Gay Problem. Face it: This election was not decided on Iraq, the economy, or even September 11. It was decided by Will & Grace. We must find a middle way here, too. I urge my fellow Democrats to support a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage but allowing gay engagements. They'll get all the exchanging rings and kissy face -- but without the political agita.

Bigotry-Lite. Face something else: A) religious bigotry won this election, and B) we've given religious bigotry a bad name. Our people, especially, in the media, must stop criticizing people just because they believe the Bible says certain out-groups are inherently evil, inferior, irrational, criminal, promiscuous, lazy, or smelly. That may be repellent to progressives (another word we need to rethink). But it's time to swallow our repulsion.

As a student I learned that bigotry is basically a refusal to acknowledge “the other.” Back there at CUA in the '70s, I also studied a certain French philosopher, Jean P. Sartre, one of our heroes, who was so far left he made Karl Marx look like Joe McCarthy. Well, it was JP who said, “L'enfer c'est les autres.” For you Francophobes, that's, “Hell is others.”

So why do we sneer at that evangelical reader of the final Left Behind book, Glorious Appearing, who's transported with righteous joy as billions of Muslims, Buddhists, Confucians, Europeans, gays, environmentalists, immigrants, porn stars, rockers, abortionists, film producers, etc. are hurled by a loving Jesus into an eternal lake of fire? Is there really a difference between us and him? Between hell is others and hell is for others?

Here's the practical side. Obviously we're not dumping gays, rockers, film stars, tree huggers. They pay the bills! But patriotic Democrats quite rightly suspect and dislike certain out-groups like Muslims and Europeans. We need to crank this up, to go from mere suspicion and dislike to irrational prejudice and rabid loathing. If we throw in a couple of dispensable out-groups like immigrants and porn stars, we might even see some House gains in 2006.

Neo-Jim Crow. Face this, too: Jim Crow is alive and well. Naked attempts to hold down the minority vote on November 2 were barely reported. Those drug laws we all agree on? Jim Crow laws. The prisons drug offenders go to? Governed by Jim Crow regulations. What I'm wondering is whether a modicum of Jim Crow is so bad?

Don't we all pretty much agree with the religious right by now that wealth is the reward for virtue and poverty is the fruit of your failings? Democrats need to go the extra mile here and understand that for righteous, white, centrist Americans, the poor are poor because they have sinned against God. Therefore it is a sin to help and tolerate them. It is a sin not to exploit and oppress them. We aren't going to change this. You want the South and the Sun Belt back? Get down with the exciting new field of intolerance! Say goodbye to Medicare, school lunches, Social Security, public education. Say hello to Plessy v. Ferguson, The Sequel.

How about supporting strict construction of the constitutional provision that African Americans are only three-fifths of a person and only have three-fifth of a vote? Thanks to disenfranchisement, that's collectively about all they have now anyway. What's the difference? We score big with the blogger right and the great white males and lose nary a vote.

Now that's a winning strategy.

Our side should be coining oxymorons like “compassionate conservatism” to express these coming policy shifts. Examples: “Moderate intolerance.” “Progressive prejudice.” “Enlightened obscurantism.” The list is endless.

And consider: A little intolerance brings out the best in people. Were African Americans ever so noble, so loved and respected, as when they were fighting intolerance? Hell, were we, when we supported them? We play this new race card right we could be back in power by mid-century.

In conclusion: Without the South and the Sun Belt, we're dead meat. My successor should remember: When the South was a reeking hospital corner of brutal racism and cretinous, Bible-thumping prejudice, it was overwhelmingly Democratic. Now it's overwhelmingly Republican. What's wrong with this picture? Has the South changed? Not really. The South stuck to its guns and now it's running the show. We changed and we're not. We need to take a long, hard look at our former glory in the 13 states of the old Confederacy, reopen the files on great Democrats like Bull O'Connor and Sheriff Haney, revisit that simpler, more innocent time when Democrats controlled the market in racism, bigotry, book burning, and sanctimonious humbuggery. Of course, we can't embrace these things as wholeheartedly as we once did (and the other side now does). But there's always a centrist, progressive version of them if you just look hard enough.

We can do all the above -- and win in 2008 -- if we never lose sight of our fundamentalist American values.

I hope you will join me for a farewell prayer breakfast on Inauguration Day at the Democratic National Committee. I will be leaving Washington immediately after the breakfast for an indefinite stay at an undisclosed destination. And I don't mean Canada.

Good luck, Harold.

Tony Hendra is an author and an actor. His best-selling book, Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul, was published last May by Random House.