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God's Politics

Jim WallisThis was a moral values election.

Many have now commented on the significant shifts among religious voters in the midterm elections, in what Steve Waldman described as the “Smaller God Gap” between Republicans and Democrats. Nationally, 29% of white evangelicals voted for Democrats – up from the 21% who voted for John Kerry in 2004 and the 25% who voted for Democrats in House races that year. And all evangelicals together (including Whites, Hispanics, Asians, and African American evangelical voters went 41% for Democrats and 58% for Republicans. Because that trend is also a profoundly generational one, it will likely grow in the future. An even bigger shift occurred among Catholics, with 55% voting for Democrats and 44% for Republicans – from the 47% of Catholics who voted for Kerry and the 49% for Democratic House candidates in 2004.

An important new exit poll, commissioned by Faith in Public Life and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and conducted by Zogby International, now shows why that shift occurred. The poll, released at a press conference today, offers more explanations of the substantial shift in religious voters in the midterm elections. Complete results are available from Faith in Public Life.

According to Faith in Public Life, the poll shows that:

*Faith groups urging people to vote according to “kitchen table” moral issues had a 20-point higher national favorability rating and a 20-point lower unfavorable rating than religious groups urging people to vote according to abortion and same-sex marriage. This difference was even starker between Catholic groups.

*In Ohio – an epicenter of faith organizing – religious groups urging people to vote according to “kitchen table” moral issues had a 25-point higher favorability rating and a 26-point lower unfavorable rating compared to those urging people to vote according to the wedge issues.

*Iraq was considered the “moral issue that most affected your vote” by 45.8% of voters, almost 6 times as many voters as abortion, and almost 5 times as many as same-sex marriage. Iraq was the top moral issue among Catholics, born-again Christians and frequent church attendees.
Poverty and economic justice topped the list of “most urgent moral problem in American culture.”

*When Catholics were asked to name the most important value guiding their vote, 67% chose “A commitment to the common good – the good of all not just the few” while 22% chose “Opposing policies such as legal abortion, gay marriage, and embryonic stem cell research.”

The new and dramatic poll underscores critical lessons from the 2006 midterm elections.

The moral agenda of religious voters has broadened beyond the two issues of abortion and gay marriage. When Focus on the Family’s James Dobson says the “moral values” voters stayed home, he is simply wrong, and the data shows it. They just didn’t think his “moral values” were the only – or most important – ones. More anti-gay marriage amendments did indeed pass, but by smaller margins than in 2004. As a headline in the Columbus Dispatch (Ohio) said, “Faithful voted on values: war, scandals and social justice all swayed religious voters.” And on those issues, the polls showed the following: 1) The American people voted to correct the disastrous mistake of the Bush Administration’s war in Iraq – and this was the motivating “moral issue” of the election. We need a new national debate on Iraq, leading to what the U.S. Catholic Bishops yesterday called “a responsible transition.” 2) The American people voted to reject the economic unfairness of Republican leadership – and “economic justice” tops the urgent moral problems list for most Americans, despite decades of conservative media pounding that continually blamed the poor for their problems and relentlessly told us the best way to help working families is to make the rich richer. Every initiative to increase state minimum wages passed – with significant involvement and support from the religious community. Other exit polls also tell us that Americans are tired of the culture of corruption that now plagues Washington and, while ready to hold both parties accountable for better ethics, principally blamed the party in power for the moral abuse of the political process.

Even more striking were the election results in key states and districts where specific outreach was done with the religious community – this time by Democratic candidates and not just Republicans. In places like Ohio and Pennsylvania, Democratic religious candidates’ outreach efforts were very successful and created even better exit poll results for them with the votes of weekly churchgoers almost evenly split in some races (a key lesson for the Democrat’s future). Even the Wall Street Journal reported, “More than in 2004, Democrats this year attracted voters moved by faith, and not just frustration. Exit polls suggest that Democrats made significant gains among several religious demographic groups, including both Catholics and evangelical Protestants.” Too many religious voters felt betrayed by Republicans, but were made to feel welcomed and important by Democrats. Trust and outreach matter.

Every kind of Democrat won – liberal, moderate, and conservative. But there will be several new Democratic members of the House and Senate who combine a social conservatism on issues like abortion and family values (without gay-bashing or wanting to criminalize a women’s desperate choice) with a strong economic populism, environmental concern, and anti-Iraq commitment. The Democrats showed a new pragmatism in selecting and supporting candidates who didn’t always toe the old party line on some social issues and displayed a winning combination of moral values. I hope that doesn’t become a mushy political centrism, but rather a new progressive path that challenges both the left and right on moral principles. There is a new moral center that looks to go neither right nor left, but goes deeper on important issues in seeking the common good. I’ll be writing about the next steps on specific issues in the weeks to come.

Evidence of significant evangelical shifts on the moral issues that matter to them politically have been seen for some time now – and I see it every week that I am on the road, especially among a new generation of evangelical pastors and students. Democrats don’t automatically benefit from that, but any candidate who speaks a moral language of politics can. Richard Cizik, of the National Association of Evangelicals, told Salon.com after the election, “Look. To be biblically consistent you have to be politically inconsistent. Evangelicals have to follow their Lord first, and not simply bend to the whim of a political party for the advantages that come with it…..We need as Evangelicals to take stock of where we are as a country – not just ecclesiastically and theologically and otherwise, but politically too. And right now is as good as any to take serious stock.” In the next election year of 2008, many moderate Evangelicals and Catholics are, as they say in politics, “up for grabs.” But as they say in churches, people are more carefully thinking and praying as never before, and are no longer in any party’s pocket.

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