The rise of the “values voter” is one of the biggest myths to come out of the 2004 election. Recent analyses have shown that most people do not define “moral issues” in accordance with the "religious right’s" view. Want proof? An even larger number of voters identified “moral issues” as their top concern in 1996 when Bill Clinton was re-elected. The phrase is vague as it is meaningless, which is why so many people latch onto it.

Thus, the results this past November were not a mandate for President George W. Bush to pursue the divisive social-issues agenda favored by TV preachers and their followers. Don’t expect that to stop the "religious right," however. They have wasted no time demanding action from the White House.

The nation faces a choice. We can spend four years dealing with pressing issues like healthcare, the economy and the deficit, or we can follow Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson on a new crusade.

Throughout history, many nations, when faced with problems that seemed intractable, have taken the latter course. Many leaders have opted for a religious diversion instead of doing hard work. At a time when our nation is becoming increasingly diverse in matters of religion, this is no time to take the doctrines of fundamentalist Christianity and write them into law.

The "religious right" complains constantly about the state of popular culture. Yet no American is forced to take part in that culture against his or her will. The free market, which conservatives normally extol, brings us violent action movies and programs like “Desperate Housewives.”

Preachers and evangelists of all stripes have urged Americans not to watch these programs, listen to songs with risqué lyrics or read steamy novels. However, Many Americans continue to do so anyway. Having failed at moral persuasion, more and more religious leaders now want the government to legislate these forms of entertainment out of existence, restrict reproductive freedom, pass harsh anti-gay laws, give religious groups tax funding through “faith-based” initiatives and stack the Supreme Court with justices who will do Pat Robertson’s bidding.

This is all fundamentally un-American. Freedom of choice means the right to make what someone else thinks is a bad choice, to choose a bodice-ripper over the Book of Job.

The "religious right" has never been happy with that fact. They want everyone to live under their narrow interpretation of Christianity. They would make people “godly” by the force of law.

The problem with that approach is it never works. Let’s stick instead with something we know works — separation of church and state. That policy has given Americans more religious freedom than any people in world history.

Not a bad track record, I’d say.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C.