DOMESTIC POLICY IS FUN….I keep trying to compose the perfect response to last night’s debate–particularly on the religion questions–but it’s just not coming. So here are my imperfect belated thoughts instead.

First of all, kudos to the Interfaith Alliance, which held a press conference on Tuesday morning, imploring Bob Schieffer to ask the candidates: “What role should and does your religious faith and values play in creating public policy?” Schieffer kind of muffed up the delivery, but he basically asked that exact same question. Who knew it was that easy? Ask and ye shall receive, indeed.

Secondly, I know I’m a policy geek, but I thought the debate was fascinating. Any undecided voter who continues to mouth off with “I just haven’t heard any specifics from the candidates” or “I still don’t know what John Kerry stands for” ought to be bound and tossed into a pit with snarling raccoons. Or Bob Novak. Either one. Seriously, people, what exactly are you waiting to hear?

A few observations:

  • Both the substance and style of Kerry’s answers were more down-to-earth than anything I’ve seen from him so far. A number of times, he talked about a values gut-check–either for himself or speaking about what “most Americans know in their gut”–that references the sense of conviction the Bushies think is their guy’s greatest asset. Yet Kerry was the one talking in terms of what matters most to Americans and sounding convincing. His answer on the homosexuality question–“We’re all God’s children, Bob” and then bringing it down to a personal level–sounded much more human than Bush’s odd reply about participatory democracy.

  • Sometime in mid-summer, thankfully Kerry stopped using the phrase “separation of church and state.” (Calm down…I’m not saying separation of church and state is bad–far from it–but the phrase sounds antiseptic compared to the improved way in which he’s talking about it.) In its place, Kerry talks about not imposing his “articles of faith” on others. That has the benefit of defending the separation principle while also pointing out that his life is guided by faith. He’s also chosen several different Kennedy quotes to use that are just perfect: “Here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own” and “I’m not running to be a Catholic president; I’m running to be a president who happens to be Catholic.”

    A number of people have questioned whether Kerry’s references to “faith without works” will offend Protestants, whose theology holds that they are saved by faith alone. The easy answer is, No. Those who are hardcore enough to think that Kerry is making a theological argument weren’t voting for him anyway. Most people understand that he’s making the point that it’s not enough to just talk about your faith–particularly if you’re, say, a candidate for the presidency. If you just talk and don’t actually try to help people, it’s all just words, words, words.

    Before the specific question about connecting faith to policy came up, Kerry did the right thing, explaining exactly how his faith motivates his public service: “That’s why I fight against poverty. That’s why I fight to clean up the environment and protect this earth. That’s why I fight for equality and justice.” We should demand that when candidates bring their faith into politics, they explain why it’s relevant. Kerry did just that, and without prompting.

  • Kerry’s home runs: 1) Minimum Wage (it’s criminal that the wage hasn’t been raised since I worked in the Senate over seven years ago…), 2) post-9/11 Unity (finally, Kerry laid blame at the feet of the Republican congressional leadership, which is essential since 40% of Americans have no idea which party runs Congress), and 3) Jobs (the mere fact that he didn’t change the subject every time it came up–four times, by my count–put him ahead of Bush).

  • Signs that the winds are of the campaign are a’changin’: 1) Bush finally started referring to Kerry as “Senator” or “the Senator” instead of the rather lame and oddly distant “my opponent”, 2) Kerry is confident enough to finally refer to the Big Dog–near the end of the debate, he mentioned “President Clinton” and then the “Clinton Administration”, the first time he’s talked about Clinton in any of the debates or his acceptance speech, and 3) He’s sure enough of his own position to take a moment to help out a struggling colleague–I’m sure Tom Daschle appreciates the shout-out to South Dakotans, reminding them of Daschle’s high-minded support of Bush following the 9/11 attacks.

Lots more to say on the religion stuff, but I’m going to think it over and maybe write an op-ed. Stay tuned.

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Amy Sullivan is a Chicago-based journalist who has written about religion, politics, and culture as a senior editor for Time, National Journal, and Yahoo. She was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 2004 to 2006.