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Wednesday, August 10, 2005

'Moral values' decisive in Bush's victory after all.

When 22 percent of voters told exit pollsters that "moral values" had been the decisive factor in the way they voted in the last U.S. presidential election — overwhelmingly for George W. Bush — many liberals expressed surprise and dismay. (I wrote about this for UU World early this year.) But soon many commentators also began discounting the impact of the so-called moral-values voters. After all, most voters hadn't selected "moral values" as their primary concern, and "moral values" wasn't the highest-rated factor overall. Furthermore, some argued, "moral values" shouldn't be assumed to refer to the pet causes of the Christian right: An anti-war progressive, for example, might have selected "moral values" because her opposition to war was a deeply moral position. And besides, the number of fundamentalists or Evangelicals or born-agains or even "conservative Christian" voters hadn't gone up significantly in recent years, so the activist ministers who were taking credit for giving Bush a second term were hyping the moral-values story well beyond any reasonable interpretation. Right?

In the new issue of Religion in the News, the exceptionally good publication of the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College, John C. Green and Mark Silk examine the full set of exit-polling data and ask how "moral values" played out regionally and by faith community. (Unfortunately, the data don't provide state results "because the number of interviews per state in the national exit poll is not high enough to give meaningful results for many states — and not all state exit polls included a 'moral values' option." Important caveats.) So how big a difference did the moral-values voters actually make?

In the four regions Bush won, "moral values" was the most important factor to at least one-fourth of the voters — and "moral values" came in first in all four regions.

In the Bush regions, moral values voters made up two-fifths or more of the president’s backers, while in the Kerry regions, they provided less than two-fifths—and in three out of four cases, less than one-third—of the Bush vote. In other words, the president won where his voters cared most about moral values.

Green and Silk calculated how much of the total vote cast in each region was made up of pro-Bush moral-values voters:

This absolute value of the president’s moral-values constituency amounted to more than one-fifth of the vote in the South and Midwest, and more than one-quarter in the Southern Crossroads and Mountain West. But it was much smaller in the Kerry states, ranging from one-sixth to less than one-eighth of the total vote cast.

These are not trivial figures: The 21.8 percent of the vote cast by Midwestern Bush moral-values voters was ten times larger than the president’s winning margin in the region (about two percent). Just as importantly, this constituency was also larger than his margin of victory in his three strongest regions.

By contrast, the Bush moral-values constituency was smaller than Kerry’s margin of victory in his three strongest regions. Only in the Pacific Northwest did this constituency outstrip Kerry’s margin—but not by quite enough to put Bush over the top. In sum, the moral values vote was critical in every part of the country except for the New England, Middle Atlantic, and Pacific regions.

The only other issue that showed strong regional differences was Iraq — "where the geographic pattern was the opposite of moral values."

In the Bush regions, an average of 12 percent named Iraq as the most important issue, while in the Kerry regions the average was 22 percent, led by a whopping 31 percent in the Pacific Northwest. In nearly inverse proportion to the Bush moral-values voters, Iraq voters gave about three-quarters of their ballots to Kerry.

The second half of their essay examines the relationship between religious affiliation, worship attendance, and voting. Iraq hardly mattered to the super-pious, 42 percent of whom cared about "moral values" but only 10 percent of whom cared about the war in Iraq. Shamefully, "whatever moral questions were raised by the Iraq war in the campaign — including, perhaps, prisoner abuse — they did not register strongly with the most religious segment of the American electorate."

Their conclusion? "The bottom line is that the Bush moral-values constituency had its biggest impact in those parts of the country where there are the most evangelicals and the largest number of regular attenders (many of whom are, of course, evangelicals)."

There's a lot of rich data and insight in their article, so I urge you to spend some time with it. But I'll end by quoting four paragraphs of their analysis of the significance of a phrase like "moral values" to Evangelicals — the group for whom the phrase had the widest and most intense salience:

To understand why evangelicals were more likely—twice as likely as their share of the population—to select “moral values” on the exit poll, we need to recognize that the evangelical subculture has long used both words to characterize its public concerns.

“Moral” (as in Moral Majority) has been a shibboleth ever since the religious right emerged onto the American scene a quarter century ago. And in the 2004 campaign, the Southern Baptist Convention—largest of the evangelical denominations—created a website that stated the message in no uncertain terms:

“What are your core values as we approach Election Day 2004? Would your list include Jobs? The Economy? Health-Care? Education? National Security? As important as those issues are, think about what your core values should be as a follower of Jesus.” (These days, such values have to do above all with opposition to abortion and gay marriage.)

Non-evangelical religious communities are far less tied to moral-values rhetoric, and thus even the most religiously committed among them were less likely to choose that expression as their most important issue on the exit poll. But regional culture matters: These other religious folks were more likely to choose moral values in the Bush regions than in the Kerry regions. As Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell hoped, the coalition of the moral has expanded beyond evangelicals, but for the most part more in the evangelical heartland than elsewhere.

("Why Moral Values Did Count," John C. Green and Mark Silk, Religion in the News Spring 2005: 5-8)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 10 August 2005 at 8:02 AM

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Dudley Jones:

August 10, 2005 12:22 PM | Permalink for this comment

Please forgive this post which is somewhat off-topic. I just wondered what advice Philocrites has for those of us who absorbed moral relativism at an early age and never really got over it.


August 10, 2005 04:35 PM | Permalink for this comment

What sort of advice are you looking for, Dudley? And what do you mean by moral relativism?

Dudley Jones:

August 10, 2005 08:30 PM | Permalink for this comment

I feel comfortable with UU values, and my life has been greatly enriched by UU people and institutions. However, I know that there are other people, some of them very intelligent and well educated, who have different values. Some of them are on the other side of the world, and some of them not so far away. I just have a deep feeling that thoughtful people of good will can disagree on vital issues. Sometimes I wonder where UUs get their unshakable confidence that they are correct. I will always vote the way UUs vote, but not with the same assurance.
In terms of what kind of advice - I do not know what to say - maybe a book to read?


August 11, 2005 07:18 AM | Permalink for this comment

I remember the time when most people that I knew had moral values, but I wonder if that is the case now. Situational ethics made sin and vice socially acceptable in some quarters and it has only gotten worse. However,as my Grandmother used to say in her Southern Baptist way, "The truth is gonna stand when the Earth falls."


August 11, 2005 08:07 AM | Permalink for this comment

Dudley (who is asking an important and honest question) and Paul (who should perhaps move to Massachusetts where people still have moral values) help illustrate the perverse genius of the Evangelical political activists who have been promoting the phrase "moral values": People who selected "moral values" as the basis for their Election Day choices are not the only moral people in America, nor are they the only people whose voting habits are deeply rooted in moral values, but their pastors sure want the rest of us to think so. They want people to buy into their mean-spirited false certainty -- which is the genius of the phrase -- but I think it's extremely important to remember that there's a wide gulf between "moral values" and moral values. Those little quote marks point to the fact that "moral values" is a shibboleth of the Christian right, whereas moral values are the glory of every human conscience.

I'd like to redirect the important conversation about liberal ethics away from this post -- which is about the success of a conservative political agenda -- and toward a post that is really about liberal moral values. Can I suggest something I wrote last year: "Do Unitarian Universalists Have Morals?" We can discuss that important question -- and ask whether UUs moral relativists -- over there.

Bill Baar:

August 18, 2005 08:48 AM | Permalink for this comment

"Moral values" is a terrible polling questions. A much better one is to ask about Church attendance. You see correlations there that are easier to make sense of.

I hear the christian right talk "family values".

My experience with UUs (two Churches in Chicago area) is their heavy on moralism and ethical humanism. More perhapes than is good.

The Evangelicals and Fundamentalists are more concerned with salvation. They get concerned with politics but it's defense: one-on-one they want to talk more about your soul and salvation, not about what you should do.

I think the left's talk about moral values has a good deal more to do with the crisis of liberalism and what it is exactly liberals value now a days. Bush has completely out flanked liberalism with a principlied foregin policy he acts on, and moral clarity on much else. Humphrey's libral mantra came up during the Schiavo case and it seemed more appropriate to Bush then those on the left. When that kind of reversal happens, the problem is more what in the world do liberals believe in now, if their turf has been clearly appropriated by a no nonsense guy like Bush. HHH said, "It was once said that the moral test of Government is how that Government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped,"

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