WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Bill Clinton was right when he attacked Republicans for suggesting ''that Democrats are somehow godless.'' Governor Clinton was reacting to a speech by President Bush in which Mr. Bush said that in the Democrats' platform they ''left out three simple letters, G-O-D.''
Neither party has a monopoly on righteousness or God, but whether a party or individual is godless or godly is not the issue. Virtually every member of Congress lists something under ''religion'' in his biography. If one is an atheist or does not practice the religion of his youth, he's not about to advertise it.
Instead of godless, let's invent a new word: less-God.
Less-God people want credit for believing in the Deity while keeping Him in a box, letting Him out only on Sunday morning and never allowing Him to impact their political world view or their personal lives between Sundays.
A Gallup Poll found that only 10 percent of Americans have ''transforming faith,'' meaning that it makes a discernible difference in their lives. Most of the rest are the less-God types, who more or less believe in God but don't think He has much to say about modern society.
These are the types who told me as a young man they didn't believe in wearing their religion on their sleeves. I learned this was because they wore short sleeves.
Bill Clinton, who appears to be a less-God politician, has said that his faith is a private matter and where he comes from most people feel the same. Actually, Southern Baptists are the most evangelical of the denominations, believing their faith should be shared with everyone.
Former President Jimmy Carter once shared his with the late South Korean President Park Chung Hee and was criticized by the New York Times, which claimed that Mr. Carter was implying that Buddhism is an inferior religion.
Most journalists and cultural elitists don't want to talk about such things. They prefer familiar ground, such as the economy.
But average Americans understand the importance of an issue like this. They know that it makes a difference how seriously a person takes the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, because where a person stands on social issues is key to understanding a candidate's total belief system.
If some candidates view law and politics as merely instruments to gratify short-term desires and not processes by which we conform people to a standard that defines right and wrong, then we know something important about the thinking of those who would lead us.
This is not trivial or a ''distraction,'' as columnist David Broder called it. It is fundamental.
Less-God candidates believe in God as one might believe in baseball. They take from God what is generally acceptable to the public but ignore the things that are controversial.
For too many conservatives this would include a failure to help the poor, the unemployed and the homeless and an insensitivity to civil rights. For too many liberals, the list includes abortion, homosexual practice and excessive taxing and spending.
Neither party has an exclusive claim on God's allegiance (or vote), but the Democrats seem to have attracted more less-God types to their leadership than the Republicans.
This time we have Bill Clinton and Al Gore, less-God candidates from the liberal (they call it ''moderate'') wing of the Southern Baptist denomination. In 1988, it was Michael Dukakis, who sought religious benefits from his association with the Greek Orthodox Church until some leaders of that denomination criticized his positions on social issues, such as abortion.
And let's not forget Walter Mondale, who in 1984 deflected a question during a debate as to whether he had been born again by saying that he had sung in more choirs than any other presidential candidate, which he thought might qualify him for heaven.
So while Republicans ought not to suggest that they are the sole incarnation of righteousness and that God is uniquely on their side, they might wish to explore the less-God idea, not only in the Democratic Party, but within their own ranks.
It's an issue large numbers of Americans understand quite well.
Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.