A 'moral voter' majority? The culture wars are back

Exit polls stir a debate over the role of morals - and religious values - in the nation's politics.

With the largest vote in US history, it's become clear that a lot of folks in the heartland, now in the majority, have morality on their minds.

Yet as moral values topped the exit polls as "the issue that mattered most" to voters, some in the blue states were reeling from what they saw as a deep values clash. People on the streets in Boston and New York told their local newspapers they were stunned and hurt - not just because their candidate lost, but because of the alienation they felt from the center of the country.

The culture wars have taken on new life, it seems, yet some suggest the talk of values as the key to the election has been overplayed. After all, even though it was the top issue, it was such for only 22 percent of those polled.

Others, however, see it as indicative of a broader concern among Americans. For several years, surveys have shown a large majority are worried about declining morals. Their voices were heard, for example, in the outcry over decency on the airwaves sparked by this year's Super Bowl halftime show.

Many have called for more religion in public life as an antidote, and President Bush's open evocation of faith clearly resonates beyond his Evangelical base. Despite negative views on the economy and the country's direction, he boosted his draw in this election among mainline Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and blacks, as well as Evangelicals.

"The success of Mr. Bush ... is that he has a better sense of where the center of conservative Christianity is in the US than all his critics on the religious right or religious left," says James Guth, political science professor at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.

The course from here

But there remains a profound values divide - some call it a chasm - and the question is whether the president will try to bridge that gap.

"Leadership is a really important thing. It's like Nixon in China. He's the man in a great position to do it," says Alan Wolfe, director of Boisi Center for Religion in American Life at Boston College.

But Dr. Wolfe doesn't hold out much hope. Yet he does foresee the election not only galvanizing the religious right to press their cause, but also spurring those in the center and left to more vigorously engage in the debate on moral issues, particularly over the war and homeland security.

To many on the right, the election outcome is directly traceable to the values concerns of Christian conservatives, with the potential "bombshell" of gay marriage prodding an unprecedented turnout at the polls.

Others highlight Bush's support for "pro-life" issues and the potential to appoint judges that might overturn Roe v. Wade, the abortion case many call the prime catalyst for the political realignment of the South from Democratic to Republican.

"Over the past 30 years, there's been a gigantic cultural shift to conservative values. The country is becoming more traditionally religious, and that's now showing up in the elections," says Richard Land, a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest US Protestant denomination. "The liberal secularist's worst fears are coming to pass: a grand alliance of white Evangelicals, black Evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons," he insists.

At the core of the party

Others agree that the 2004 election marks the arrival of Evangelicals at the core of the Republican party. "They've replaced mainline Protestants at every level except at the top," says Dr. Guth. "On social issues and foreign policy, they are at the core. On tax cuts and economic policies, they ... may be even more supportive than the business community."

The religious right has long promoted criticism of "secular, liberal elites," whom they hold responsible for unbridled individualism and moral decline in schools and society. But there are critics who insist those positions hold dangerous contradictions. For example, while religious conservatives enthusiastically champion free-market capitalism and corporate tax cuts, such critics say, who is it that promotes the Hollywood values and pornography they so vehemently oppose? Not the liberal political leaders, but corporate interests most benefiting from those policies.

At the same time, some warn that Democrats are in danger of overemphasizing the economic and not connecting sufficiently on cultural values. "Most Democratic elites believe that economics drives everything ... and it's just not true," says Marshall Wittmann, a former Republican activist now with the Democratic Leadership Council. "If Democrats aren't better able to address cultural issues, then the electoral map will continue to shrink."

With the US shifting to the right, others see a necessity to explicitly counter the antiliberal rhetoric fueling the culture war.

"There are profoundly important and precious values that liberals stand for that are central to the founding of this country - liberty, human rights, and human dignity," says Wolfe.

Any values debate, he says, must involve Americans considering more deeply how values are reflected in the country's actions.

"Abu Ghraib is a deep moral crisis. Some 100,000 civilians have died in Iraq - that's a profound moral crisis involving religious values," Wolfe adds. "That this doesn't register with so many Americans is disturbing and difficult to understand."

While Americans greatly differ over which values deserve priority, it's also true that societal values are continually shifting. Despite the overwhelming approval of marriage amendments in the states, 63 percent of Americans now support either civil unions or legalized gay marriage. In a Gallup poll this summer, 58 percent of conservatives said divorce is "morally acceptable." Divorce is as common among Evangelical Christians as among other faith groups.

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