Exit polls tell us that about a third of Bush supporters in Tuesday’s election said they backed the president because of “moral values.” In the 14 most competitive states — where almost three in 10 voters overall described themselves as born-again Christians, higher than the national total — moral values topped the list of the most important issues facing America. Nationwide, nearly a quarter of voters said faith guided them this election season.
Since 2000, when about 4 million evangelicals stayed home from the polls, Republican political strategist Karl Rove has said strong Christian turnout was key to a second Bush term. Four years later that strategy worked: Election Day represented a near-wholesale Republican lock on “morality” as a political issue.
Not only did a record number of self-identified Christians cast ballots this year, Bush beat John Kerry in all religious categories except among Jews, three-quarters of whom supported the senator. Despite being the first Roman Catholic nominated for president since John Kennedy in 1960, Kerry lost soundly to Bush among white Catholics 56 percent to 43 percent. And though Bush hasn’t attended church in two years and Kerry routinely attends Mass, Bush received 40 percent of the vote from weekly churchgoers. Among white, religious conservatives that number jumped to 95 percent.
The right has long used the fight against abortion, science, gay rights and gun control to inspire this religious bloc, but two features of this year’s election added urgency to the vote.
Measures banning gay marriage — credited with increasing Republican turnout — won landslide victories in the 11 states they were on the ballot, receiving less than 60 percent of the vote only in Michigan and Oregon, the two of these states Kerry won. The threat of gay marriage “has drawn people of faith together as I have seen no other issue do,” Rod Parsley, senior pastor at the World Harvest Church in Columbus, Ohio, told the Baltimore Sun. “We’ve been silent long enough. It’s time for us to stand up, and we did that.”
But September 11 proved most useful in these mobilization efforts.
Decades of get-tough Republican rhetoric resonated more widely and deeply when cast as a Manichean struggle, which has been the consistent Bush message since 9⁄11. That, combined with the retributive teachings of the Old Testament, allowed Bush to broaden the link between religion and personal safety — extending the debate on gun ownership and crime to the battle against global terrorism.
“Bush offered moral clarity. He was much more likely to speak of right and wrong, good and evil,” John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California, told Knight Ridder “He was more visible in his religious conviction.”
The sad irony, of course, is that Bush’s holy war was used to justify a whole host of immoral acts. In the last four years, torture was sanctioned, deception became the norm, and pride, greed and wrath — three of the seven deadly sins — came to define the administration along with its proxies in Iraq and elsewhere. All the while the administration used generalized fear to keep the battle going — and made Americans less safe in the process.
So on Wednesday Democrats awoke with a metaphorical hangover, facing the shame that comes of trying to explain what went on the night before. How does one, after all, possibly account for an amoral yet self-avowed non-churchgoing fundamentalist winning election over a moderate practicing Catholic? With a mandate? And largely through the religious vote?
Fearing they forever will be in the minority without a religious conversion, some Democrats now are calling for a reevaluation of their values to appeal to this bloc — given that the party’s image as godless, gay-loving and weak on defense is contrary to the country’s shift toward a more thorough faith-based society. As argued by Chris Duncan, chairman of the University of Dayton political science department: “On questions of moral values, the image is of Democrats being in part sort of hostile to some of the real concerns people have in terms of values. Whether right or wrong, these are big issues for a significant portion of the electorate, and the Democrats are really putting themselves in the position of being a minority party for a long time if they can’t reconcile themselves with some of these issues.”
But all this talk — and the Democrats’ seeming need for quadrennial bloodlettings no matter the outcome of elections — overlooks one important fact: The same exit polls that signal a national trend toward religious conservatism indicate a continuing progressive attitude toward social issues. Fifty-five percent, for instance, said abortion should be mostly or always legal, steady since 2000, and 61 percent said same-sex couples should have the right to marry or have civil unions. And when asked about the most important quality a presidential candidate could have, only 8 percent cited religious faith. Yes, Bush won the popular vote, but he did so in no greater numbers than those formerly disaffected evangelicals targeted for turnout by Republicans this year. In other words, Bush required these people to win precisely because his isn’t a consensus view.
The greatest mistake Democrats could make in the next four years is to assume a trend where none exists and cede yet more territory to the right through direct religious appeals.
“You’re a tweak or two away from a total reversal,” Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego, told the Baltimore Sun. “It’s not a realignment unless these people stay involved or keep coming out.”
There is a chasm between developing an election strategy and sacrificing defining principles such as secular reason and tolerance — one that should remain. As Senator Bob Graham of Florida noted to the New York Times: “We ought to debate what our strategy should be in the war on terrorism. We also ought to have a debate on how we can move the debate on values beyond God, guns and gays to tolerance, concern for others, love.”