Election Day Illusion

The Religious Right's 'Moral Issues' Mischief

Since Election Day, the country has been bombarded with claims that “values voters” obsessed with Religious Right social issues flocked to their precincts and created a tide that carried President George W. Bush to victory.

This claim rests on a single dubious finding in an exit poll: When presented with a list of issues that most influenced their vote for president, 22 percent of voters chose “moral values.”

Since then, several more clear-eyed analyses of the election have taken place. As it turns out, the effect of “values voters” on the race has been greatly exaggerated.

“Moral values” is a very vague term. It means many different things to many different people. Some in the media assumed that by “moral values” voters must have meant things like abortion, same-sex marriage, racy television programs and so on.

Some undoubtedly meant that, but others meant something entirely different.

A week after the election, two progressive religious groups, Pax Christi and Res Publica, joined the Center for American Progress in releasing a poll conducted by Zogby International on moral issues.

The poll’s findings are very interesting. They prove that “moral values” is so vague a term just about anyone can latch onto it and infuse it with whatever meaning they choose.

For example, 33 percent of respondents in the Zogby poll identified “greed and materialism” as the most pressing moral issue facing the nation. Thirty-one percent said “poverty and economic justice.” Only 12 percent named same-sex marriage.

The poll also found that 42 percent said the war in Iraq was the “moral issue” that most influenced their vote. Thirteen percent cited abortion, and 9 percent said same-sex marriage.

A prominent pollster, Gary Langer of ABC News, realized early on that the emphasis on “values voters” was mistaken. Writing in The New York Times Nov. 6, Langer noted that the phrase “moral values” is too vague to be useful for serious political analysis. Langer even noted that he had tried to persuade other pollsters to leave the phrase out of the exit polling but was overruled.

“[T]his hot-button catch phrase had no place alongside defined political issues on the list of most important concerns in the 2004 vote,” Langer wrote. “Its presence there created a deep distortion – one that threatens to misinform the political discourse for years to come.”

Interestingly, “moral values” have topped voters’ concerns before. In 1996, an even larger number of Americans identified that issue as most important to them. That year, voters re-elected Bill Clinton over Sen. Robert Dole. No one would seriously argue that the Religious Right had a hand in that result!

Does this mean the Religious Right didn’t play a role in the 2004 election? No. Religious Right groups were active in the campaign and obviously backed Bush’s effort.

They were not, however, a decisive factor. This means the Religious Right did not win a mandate for its repressive social-issues agenda.

The overriding social philosophy of most Americans has always been “live and let live.” Americans don’t want the government meddling in people’s personal lives or trying to take away their reproductive freedoms. Few want a neo-Puritan “thought police” down at the local library tossing “wicked” tomes on a bonfire.

Exit polling from the recent election confirms this. For example, the Religious Right says this election means that Bush has a mandate to name federal judges who will overturn legal abortion. But most Americans still back legal abortion, according to the exit polls.

Americans obviously have some qualms about same-sex marriage, but most do not buy into the Religious Right’s hard-line stance on this issue. In fact, 25 percent told exit pollsters that they favor same-sex marriage, and 35 percent backed civil unions, meaning 60 percent favor some sort of official recognition of gay unions. Thirty-seven percent said they oppose all state recognition of same-sex partnerships – far from a majority.

So where does this leave us? There is no denying that the next four years will be challenging. Religious Right leaders will insist that “values voters” handed the president a mandate to bulldoze the wall of separation between church and state. Our task is to make sure that does not happen.

Americans United will remain in the thick of the battle, and we’ll need our members to stand alongside us with renewed diligence.

We will oppose nominees to the federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, who are antagonistic toward church-state separation.

We will stand against efforts to expand misguided “faith-based” initiatives and other schemes that divert taxpayer money to religious schools and other ministries.

We will protect the public schools from efforts to infuse them with fundamentalist dogma and censor the curriculum to reflect religious belief.

We will safeguard the religious liberty rights of all Americans – Christian and non-Christian – as well as defend the rights of those who choose not to worship.

Americans United will need your help. We’ll need you to contact your legislators, speak out against dangerous proposals and legislation, educate people in your community with letters to the editor and opinion pieces and engage in many other tasks to protect the church-state wall.

It won’t be easy – but defending our constitutional rights never is.