The Political Weight of Moral Values

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The Political Weight of Moral Values

by Ari Armstrong, November 7, 2004

Much has been made of the "moral values" vote -- maybe too much. Nobody doubts that the religious right is well organized, fairly large, and motivated by such issues as limiting abortion and prohibiting gay marriage. True enough, if Bush had lost all the right wingers who conflate "moral values" with social-control legislation, Bush would have lost. But the same can be said for any other element of the broad coalition that re-elected Bush, including those concerned about security, free markets, and gun rights. Moreover, most who voted primarily for reasons of right-wing religious "moral values" also voted for Bush for other reasons.

What are the statistics regarding "moral values?" As the AP's Richard Ostling reports, "The president had the support of 78 percent of white evangelicals, 23 percent of the voters." Further, "Bush was favored by 61 percent of people from all faiths who attend services weekly; they made up 41 percent of the electorate. Democrat John Kerry drew 62 percent of Americans who never attend worship, but they only accounted for 14 percent of voters." Finally, "When respondents were asked to pick the one issue that mattered most in choosing a president, 'moral values' ranked first at 22 percent, surpassing the economy (20 percent), terrorism (19 percent) and Iraq (15 percent)."

Let's restate the figures a bit. 18% of voters were white evangelicals who supported Bush. That's a lot, but still a minority. 78% of voters picked something other than "moral values" as their top interest.

Some evangelicals are more evangelical than others. At one end, some would be perfectly happy with theocracy, including the abolition of abortion, the persecution of gays and adulterers, state-run religious schools, and so forth. At the other end, some "evangelicals" are live-and-let-live libertarians most concerned with free markets and national defense.

The eleven successful state initiatives to restrict gay marriage don't reveal much about beliefs. My position is that the state shouldn't license any marriage, gay or straight. Churches and other groups may choose to recognize marriage as they choose. Nor do I want welfare benefits to be broadened because of marriage. So, while I would never vote to entrench legal discrimination against gays by supporting a gay-marriage ban, neither do I assume that those who voted for the gay-marriage bans are hyper-religious bigots.

We can assume there's something like a bell curve to fit the beliefs of "evangelicals," with the tails containing live-and-let-live Christians on one end and theocrats on the other. I suspect the bulge tilts heavily to the live-and-let-live libertarian end, but I'm not aware of any rich survey information that would confirm my guess.

Obviously, "moral values" is not a binary function: it's not as if people have either got them or not. Instead, "moral values" can describe an incredibly large range of beliefs. To my atheistic Objectivist friends (many of whom voted for Bush), moral values means rationality, productivity, honesty, self-reflection, etc. To theocrats, moral values means implementing God's will on Earth through force of law. To the Nazis, moral values meant advancing the alleged interests of a race. There is nothing inherent in "moral values" that suggests the religious right. (Nor does calling a particular sentiment a "moral value" make it so.)

Of course, today in the U.S., we can assume "moral values" is usually code for religious right, and most of the 22% who listed "moral values" as their main concern are evangelicals of some ambiguous degree of severity.

Will Lester of the AP notes, "Bush won among those in swing states who picked moral values by 84-15 and he won among those who picked terrorism by 85-15." So around 19% of all voters highlighted "moral values" and also voted for Bush. The numbers seem to consistently suggest around a fifth of the voting population is evangelical Republican. Again, though, it's difficult to tell which issues are most important to individual members of this group. Even if "moral values" was most important, it could be that they were only barely more important than any number of other issues, including security, limited taxation, and gun rights. For instance, I suspect most NRA members are evangelicals, but this is demographic coincidence (i.e., associated with the rural population).

Another indicator that suggests "moral values" as an issue favors the Republicans but not by a profound amount. A release from PRWEB reports, "Forty-nine percent of likely voters said that President George W. Bush shares their moral values compared with 41 percent of likely voters who say Kerry shares their moral values according to the latest Zogby/O'Leary Report poll conducted September 17-19, 2004 of 1,066 likely voters nationwide with a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percentage points. Fifty-four percent of Red State (states won by Bush in 2000) likely voters and 43% of Blue State (states won by Gore in 2000) likely voters said Bush shares their moral values. Conversely, 37% of Red State voters and 46% of Blue State voters said Kerry best shares their moral values." Yet a lot of this has to do with Kerry's post-Vietnam activism and socialist tendencies.

Interestingly, it appears that many voters view the Democrats as the fiscal conservatives, given Bush's tax-cut-and-spend record. David Boaz writes, "In the most recent poll that asked the question, 64 percent of voters said that they prefer smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes, while only 22 percent would rather see a more active government with more services and higher taxes." In the election, Lester notes "John Kerry won by a wide margin among those who picked the economy" as their top priority.

Another key voting block, young voters, went for Kerry by a fairly large margin (Michael Moore says 54-44%). Boaz reflects, "Bush ran worst with voters under 30, perhaps because solid majorities of them favor smaller government and oppose the marriage amendment and other gay-bashing. Young voters from the Reagan years are still voting Republican, but the Bush-Rove borrow-and-spend-and-nanny-state strategy may have cost their party a generation."

There's definitely an evangelical surge among young people, but there's an even stronger libertarian streak of fiscal conservatism and live-and-let-live social views. For instance, an AP story about a protest by students at Boulder High School cites "worried about the huge national debt run up during the first four years of the Bush administration, along with military recruitment in schools and other issues." The students particularly wanted to talk with "4th District Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, R-Fort Morgan, who sponsored the failed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage."

Meanwhile, Californians passed a measure to support stem-cell research, Montanans legalized medical marijuana, and Coloradans denied social-control Republicans control of the legislature. The Republican for U.S. Senate, Pete Coors, as well as Republican candidates for state legislature, were hammered by pro-choice campaign literature, and they lost.

Of course leaders of the religious right will spin the election to favor their own views. The religious right made modest gains but alienated much of the population. Even evangelicals lean more toward sentiments of limited government than social control. Perhaps that's why Arlen Specter, the new Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said, "When you talk about judges who would change the right of a woman to choose, overturn Roe v. Wade, I think that is unlikely" (November 5 New York Times). Maybe that's also why Bush said at a November 4 press conference, "No president should ever try to impose religion on our society."

A broader point may be made concerning moral values. The intrisicist, mysticist, religious right is a reaction against the moral subjectivism of the left particularly of the 1960s. Moral subjectivism obviously doesn't work; thus, many people today turn to the absolutism of religion. Intrinsicism, though, merely substitutes the whim of God (as it is understood by religious leaders) for the whims of society or the individual in defining alleged moral values. The alternative to both leftist subjectivism and rightist mysticism is objectivity of moral values. That is, morality comes neither from God nor from society nor from personal whim, but rather from the nature of humanity and the objective requirements of successful human life. This was essentially the message of Andrew Bernstein, an Objectivist who spoke in Boulder and Denver November 5 and 6. The objectivity of value allows us to escape the theocratic tendencies of the right and the collectivist tendencies of the left, and turn instead to a system of individual rights and economic liberty that best allows people to live productive, successful lives free from political oppression.

That people should vote for moral values is unquestionable. First, though, they must understand which values actually are moral.

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