The Mixed Message of 'Moral Values'

Christian groups are exulting that 21% of voters cited 'moral values' as key. But 79% of the American public did not.

Religious conservatives and the President are understandably elated about the role religion and values played in Tuesday's election. "Yesterday America cried out and He heard from heaven and answered our prayers," says Jim Rogers of the conservative group Mission America. "Now is the time to begin our long, national cultural renewal," says William Bennett. Moral values were, after all, "the main reason George W. Bush was reelected."

As an editor of a website about religion and values, I have an institutional bias toward relentlessly highlighting the effect of these issues, which the media too often ignore.

But let's not get carried away. Yes, faith and morality played a crucial role; but it's important to decipher the proper message.

First, much has been made of the fact that in exit polls 21% cited "moral values" as the key to their vote. This surprised some analysts because earlier polls had emphasized the importance of the economy, Iraq, or terror.

It's worth starting with the observation that 79% of the American public did not think moral values were the most important issue.

What we saw this week was not a seismic shift of public opinion toward morality-based issues, but rather a successful effort by the Bush campaign to find voters who cared most about those issues and get them to the polls. In fact, the more one looks at the data on religion, the more one is forced to conclude that while the Bush campaign did get the final edge with the help of religious voters, the country is still just about as equally divided as before.

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Take the "religion gap." Polls have showed in the past that people who attend church regularly tend to vote for Republicans, and those who don't vote for Democrats.

Sure enough, this gap did come through in 2004, but it was almost exactly the same size as in 2000. The percent of the electorate made of people who went to church weekly or more: 42%. In 2000? 42%.

But it's not quite right to say that the Republicans are the religious party and the Democrats are the secular party. Kerry beat Bush among people who say they go to services a few times a month or a few times a year. And in some states, Kerry beat Bush even among weekly churchgoers.

The election results even offer a mixed message on the particular "moral values" themselves. Though the exit poll question didn't ask, most experts have assumed that referred to gay marriage and abortion.

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Steven Waldman
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