Imagine going to the dentist with an aching tooth, and going through the pain of having it diagnosed and pulled — only to discover the dentist pulled the wrong tooth. Not only have you suffered for nothing, you've still got to operate on the real problem.
Democrats seem about to put themselves through this agony. Pundits and politicians tell Democrats that they have a "values" problem — that people of faith vote against them in large numbers because the Democratic party is seen as secular, or as anti-Christian or as straying from mainstream values.
Poppycock. Democrats didn't lose Florida in 2000 and the 2000 election because of the lack of a high-faith profile. Al Gore won the popular vote nationally and the popular vote of the majority who cast ballots in Florida on election day. He lost Florida because the fix was in, because the Voting Rights Act was not enforced — and because Republicans turned the recount into an alley fight while Gore played by rules.
Republican partisan Katherine Harris, acting as both Secretary of State and the head of the Bush campaign, used a Republican firm to purge the voting rolls of eligible African American voters. Jewish voters, confused by sloppy ballots, ended up voting for Pat Buchanan by the thousands.
During the recount, Gore took his team on the ground off the field; Republicans canvassed right-wing staffers from Washington, transported them to Florida and turned them into mobs to intimidate vote counters. And then a transparently partisan majority in the Supreme Court violated its own principles and shamed itself by ordering an end to a fair count, worried Bush might lose. This wasn't about faith; it was about will.
Similarly, Democrats didn't lose Ohio in 2004 and the 2004 election because of the lack of a high faith profile. They lost because the fix was in, and because once again, Republicans had a partisan zealot — Ken Blackwell — as Secretary of State. Once again he abused the powers of his office in choosing voting machines and election schemes. Once again, a majority of people set out to vote for Bush's opponent on election day. This time, John Kerry decided not even to contest the fixed result. This wasn't the absence of faith but the presence of tyranny.
Having identified the wrong tooth, Democrats are now hearing the wrong prescription. They're urged to embrace the symbols of faith, to go to church, to speak from the Gospel, to advertise their faith.
But faith is not a political posture. True faith isn't exhibited by symbolic acts, but by substance.
Values are not expressed by the paraphernalia of faith. Values are expressed by action. An abolitionist fighting to end slavery expresses faith. A slave owner attending a church that excludes slaves from attendance reflects bad faith.
The Bible says you know a tree by the fruit it bears, not by the bark it wears. We know the values of a politician not by the public prayers he or she prays, but by the priorities supported in his or her budget vote. A vote for a budget that cuts basic needs from poor children while giving more tax breaks to the affluent expresses the values — and the bad faith — of those who vote for it.
The Bible is clear about this. Faith is substance, not posturing. A person is mugged on the Jericho Road. A man of religion, displaying all the signs of piety, sees the victim and crosses to the other side of the road. A man from the victim's own ethnic origins spies him and crosses to the other side of the road. A stranger in the land, with a different religion, a different way of worshipping God, with no green card, stops, puts the victim on his donkey and provides him with the resources to get care. The parable of the Good Samaritan comes to us through the ages because it calls us to express our faith in action.
We are judged by how we treat the least of these, not how pious we are in the first pew.
Democrats should focus not on the pubic display of their faith, but on the will to fight for what they believe in. If they don't learn to stand up and fight — for the Voting Rights Act, for equal opportunity, for full employment and a living wage, for lifting the poor up, not locking them out, for making certain that every vote is counted — then they just might be left without a prayer.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. is founder and president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.