I had just finished speaking at a Northern Virginia church when an attractive young woman with a pixie haircut introduced herself, saying she'd just moved here from Boston.

"This," she said, gesturing at her female companion, "is my wife."

"Nice to meet you!" I said, asking how they were enjoying Washington and praying that no one could tell that inside, I was reeling.

But from what? Surprise, even though I knew that hundreds of such newlyweds have existed since the recent explosion of gay marriages? Confusion that such warm, likable women would be dismissed by some as hell-bound underminers of a God-fearing nation?

From change smacking me in the face?

The next night, I sat before the TV, digesting President Bush's increasingly evident win. I'd sat in the same spot in February and again in May watching footage of same-sex couples whooping with joy over finally exchanging vows in San Francisco and Massachusetts. Back then, my feelings of fascination and apprehension were overwhelmed by an internal whisper:

This is awful for the Kerry campaign.

Since Tuesday, people have convincingly cited terrorism, war in Iraq, Republican election high jinks, young, "PlayStation-beats-standingin-line" non-voters and other factors for Kerry's loss.

I think I called it right earlier this year.

In a recent column, I noted that the Bible mentions poverty more than 2,000 times. The Good Book refers to homosexuality fewer than a dozen times, often obliquely. Jesus never mentioned homosexuality; same-gender sex didn't even make God's Top Ten list of no-nos. Adultery and premarital sex, also biblically frowned-upon, abound.

Yet gay marriages, and the legal decisions that fueled them, sparked a firestorm that helped consume Kerry's presidential hopes.

In the past year, Americans endured numerous moral outrages, including mounting casualties in Iraq, fresh-faced U.S. soldiers torturing helpless prisoners and a thin but rested-looking Osama bin Laden scolding us from a TV studio. There wasn't a thing we felt we could do about it.

But gay newlyweds' in-your-face exuberance provided a "Fear Factor" moment many Americans didn't have to sit still for.

On Tuesday, strong majorities voted for 11 state ballot initiatives rejecting same-sex marriage. In swing states, the Bush campaign successfully capitalized on the president's call in February for a constitutional amendment restricting marriage to the union of men and women.

Republican opponents of same-sex unions feel validated and energized. Democrats -- some of whom are torn or feel similarly about the issue -- are angry and depressed. Some are mystified.

Not me. I'm one of millions of Americans who click off shock-jocks' radio obscenities, who was angered by Janet Jackson's crude, failed attempt to sell albums, and whose careful monitoring of my 9-year-old's entertainment often feels futile. Citizens such as I exist in every political party.

Yet Democrats -- who tend to see themselves as hip, inclusive forward-thinkers -- let Republicans frame morality as their issue, as a selective, sex-steeped concept that ignores actions that also are morally suspect: misleading a nation into war, ignoring the deaths of thousands of civilian victims; tolerating the environment's plunder; shrugging off more than 40 million of our neighbors lacking health insurance.

Aren't family values as complex as the lives they enrich?

Bush far outdistanced Kerry among 30- to 44-year-olds, the group most likely to have impressionable kids. He received 78 percent of the vote among those who said "moral values" was their most vital issue. Voters who cited education, health care, Iraq and the economy overwhelmingly supported Kerry.

Although I was unsettled by gay-marriage photos -- pretending otherwise would be lying -- I can't imagine that charming couple I met as democracy's direst threat. I doubt they represent something Jesus would have his followers stamp out before deprivation, indifference and war, fear factors that create the terrorism we dread.

I'm reminded of another woman at church, who shifted uncomfortably as she asked, "What should loving people do when the other" -- those who demonstrate their disagreement in nasty, contemptuous ways -- "is so . . . unloving?"

The impossible, I suggested: "Remember the many times we've been unlovable," I told her. Love our neighbor as we try -- and often fail -- to love ourselves.

In a nation divided, demonizing the "other" -- whether an antiabortion Republican or a war-despising Democrat -- deepens the rift. Those who automatically judge political opponents as evil, stupid or "un-American" aren't just wrong. They're part of the problem. Those who fear strengthened Republican majorities should recognize their humanity -- and find creative, authentic ways to appeal to it. Those frustrated by the rank, often selfish fears that spurred some to vote Republican must do better at dismantling them. Confronting issues that tempt both sides' rigidity -- abortion, gay rights, the environment, the war -- we must learn to hear the "other's" heartfelt points of view.

We must explain, then defend our views -- not to a backward "enemy," but to fellow citizens whose humanity we can engage.

And we should fight, passionately, for our beliefs. Those who crow about the president winning more votes than any candidate in history fail to mention that Sen. John F. Kerry won the second-most ever. The numbers on both sides represent incredible amounts of energy and conviction that only a fool would underestimate.

The United States' most threatening marriage is the miserable one between its Republican and Democratic halves. Like many marriages, it's an ever-shifting union between squabbling, self-involved partners convinced of each other's misguidedness.

One minute, one partner is on top; the other the next. Power shifts like mercury between them.

What if both partners acknowledged their flaws, and their need of that exasperating "other"? What if before trying to punch, hammer and overwhelm each other with their views, they pondered a poet's wise sentiment:

Pieces fit. People flow together.