Study: Election created new 'values voter'

Rejecting 'culture wars,' most people of faith signal desire for politics that build bridges.

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff
Voters lined up to cast their ballot Nov. 4 at First United Methodist Church in Center Point, Ala.

Americans painted a new picture of the "values voter" in the recent election.

They rejected the "culture wars," with its narrow agendas and liberal-conservative divisiveness, in favor of politics that build bridges on a range of contentious issues. The readiness to work together is revealed in a national poll on voters' priorities and values taken on Nov. 5-7 in the immediate aftermath of the election.

Nearly three-quarters of voters (and of religious voters) said people of faith should promote the common good, not protect their own views. Even groups most active in the religious right said a broader faith agenda would best reflect their values.

Only 1 in 5 white Evangelicals and 1 in 8 Catholics said an agenda focused on abortion and same-sex marriage best expressed their values. A majority of both Evangelicals (55 percent) and Catholics (51 percent) opted for a broad agenda that also includes poverty, the environment, and the war in Iraq. The survey involved a nationally representative sample of 1,277 voters and had a margin of error of 3 percent.

"Our poll shows that Catholics and white Evangelicals reject the idea that focusing on one or two issues is the right way to engage in public life," says Katie Paris, of Faith in Public Life, which sponsored the survey conducted by Public Religion Research in Washington.

Also, President-elect Barack Obama apparently made inroads into that faith community beyond those who backed him. Many white Evangelicals - nearly twice the number who actually voted for him - now say he is "friendly to religion" and "shares their values."

Although much has been made of the boost Sarah Palin's candidacy gave to Sen. John McCain among Evangelicals, the survey shows that her nomination was a net loss for the GOP ticket. Only 30 percent of white Evangelicals said her nomination made them more likely to support McCain, while it decreased support among every other religious group and among independents.

In regard to domestic issues, 48 percent of voters picked the economy (no surprise) as the single most important issue in the election, with 12 percent choosing Iraq and 8 percent, healthcare. In naming their top two issues, voters chose the same three: economy (70 percent), Iraq (35 percent), and healthcare (31 percent.) When asked who they thought was most responsible for the current economic crisis, voters pointed largely to the failure of major institutions. Some 38 percent said the primary responsibility rests with corporations that made bad business decisions. About 31 percent said the government neglected its regulatory responsibilities, and 25 percent blamed individuals who were careless and borrowed more than they could afford.

Abortion (9 percent) and same-sex marriage (1 percent) ranked at the bottom of their "most important issue" list. Americans remained split on abortion, however, with 52 percent saying it should be legal in all or most cases, and 45 percent opting for illegal in all or most cases.

But the survey found overwhelming support for seeking common ground in reducing the number of abortions. Eighty-three percent of voters said elected leaders should work together to enact policies for that purpose. This includes 86 percent of white Evangelicals and 81 percent of Catholics ­ and similar majorities of abortion-rights and antiabortion voters.

"Catholics and other people of faith want our elected officials to unite in support of robust public policies that research tells us help prevent the tragedy of abortion," says Alexia Kelley, executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, a co-sponsor of the poll.

On foreign policy, the survey revealed a strong bias among Americans today in favor of diplomacy over military strength as the best means for ensuring peace. Americans remain focused on security concerns, with 72 percent saying that stopping the spread of nuclear weapons should be the No. 1 priority, followed by maintaining a strong military (70 percent). Some 53 percent named "Improving America's reputation in the world" as a top concern, with 48 percent calling for banning torture and addressing global warming.

When it comes to how to achieve these aims, 61 percent emphasized diplomacy and 29 percent said military strength.

The readiness for unified action to solve problems also showed up in another poll released this week. Pew Research Center found that about three-quarters of all voters ­ including a solid majority of Republicans (56 percent) ­ said GOP leaders should work with Obama to accomplish things, even if it meant disappointing some supporters. They said Democratic leaders should do the same.

People of faith are ready to work with them, according to Jim Wallis, president of the evangelical group Sojourners. A new faith coalition, he said, which includes Christians of color, young people, progressive Catholics, Protestants, and some in other faith traditions is "reaching across barriers" in pursuit of change.

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