WHAT DO the death penalty, Sudan, Iraq and the environment have in common?

Most would identify these issues with far-left hippies, protesting in tie-dye and singing "Kumbaya. " But while these are issues the left cares about, they are also issues of great moral importance to the religious community.

Yet most Democrats either refer to the religious community with scorn or put up feeble attempts to pretend that the spirit moves them, too - or something in between. And they're doing this to their own political detriment.

The sooner they realize they have more in common with religious communities than they think, and treat them with the proper respect, the sooner the party can crawl out of the minority.

As a progressive and a deeply religious person, I straddle the two sides. Unfortunately, the gap is getting greater, not smaller. Instead of sitting down and actually listening to communities of faith, Democrats read the polls.

Polling tells them that more and more people consider "moral values" of utmost importance when determining their vote. The reaction is either to dismiss this group as "religious extremists" who are out of touch with reality, or do what far too many Democrats do, suddenly proclaim they love Jesus, too.

The first reaction simply makes religious people feel disrespected and unwanted. The second usually sets off the BS detectors.

For example, John Kerry's advisers thought they were hitting a home run when they had their candidate proclaim that he was an altar boy for years. As a practicing Catholic, I know being an altar boy is something your parents make you do for your $20 allowance. And in an infamous gaffe, Howard Dean tried to come off as religious by saying the Book of Job was his favorite part of the New Testament. (Oops, it's the Old Testament. )

The lazy reading of the polls is what has led to such simplistic reactions to religious voters. A deeper examination finds some interesting results. Yes, for some evangelical Christians, the phrase "moral values" means an antipathy to abortion or opposition to gay marriage. But to many other voters, "moral values" means caring for the poor, safeguarding the environment and expressing kindness to neighbors. You know, those things that some guy named Jesus teaches us are important.

This is exactly what Democrats miss because they are not listening to the religious communities. If they did, they would learn that Catholic priests and nuns are more in the forefront of the fight against the death penalty than liberal activists like Alec Baldwin.

Before the Congressional Black Caucus or the left got interested in Sudan, evangelical Christians were on the ground there, aiding those in need.

The most effective environmental message I have ever seen were billboards in the rust belt calling for conservation that read, "What would Jesus drive? "

IT WASN'T THE Sierra Club or Greenpeace sponsoring the ad, it was the Evangelical Christian Network.

When Pope John Paul II was near death, he called the president not to talk about abortion, gay marriage or pornography. The most important issue to the Holy Father at the time was avoiding a war in Iraq.

Bill Clinton understood this, and that it why he was the last politician to effectively reach out to the religious community. Unlike George Bush, Bill Clinton didn't wear his religion on his sleeve. He didn't brag about all the times he went to church, or claim that he had a direct line to God. What Clinton did, with great mastery, was sit down with the communities of faith and let them know he heard them, understood them and would work with them where they saw eye to eye. On issues they did not agree on, like gay rights, he was honest about his differences.

I ran into Bill Clinton not too long ago and asked him about this issue. He told me that religious communities are telling him that they would like to work with the left on issues like Iraq, the environment, Sudan and the death penalty, but since Clinton left office, no Democratic politicians are calling them anymore.

Democrats, the religious community is ready to take your call, but you better do it quick. If not, when you need them the most - 2006 for example - they might just hang up on you for good. *