The "Values" Panic

The right has no monopoly on morals--or on moral bullying.


One of the big stories to emerge from the election was the values vote. In a CNN exit poll, 22 percent of the voters said "moral values" was the most important issue–ahead of both terrorism and Iraq–and 80 percent of these values-oriented voters backed George W. Bush.

Both right and left jumped on this news, the former to proclaim that Bush now had a mandate to, as virtue czar William Bennett put it, "promote a more decent society, through both politics and law"; the latter to paint Bush voters as hordes of Bible-thumping rednecks out to force their bigoted "values" down our throats.

Then came the revisionist view. The evangelicals' share of total voter turnout did not increase from 2000, and the presence of anti-same-sex-marriage amendments on the ballots in 11 states did not seem to give Bush much of a boost at the polls. Some suggested that "moral values" could have meant a lot of different things to respondents; novelist/blogger Roger Simon, a pro?gay marriage Bush supporter, noted that he might well have picked that item on the questionnaire because he views the war on Islamofascist terror as the predominant moral issue of our time.

The new conventional wisdom seems to hold, despite some attempts to revise the revisionism. On November 23 in National Review Online, Maggie Gallagher cited a Pew Research Center poll showing that most of the voters who picked moral values as their chief concern did indeed define "values" in terms of social or religious conservatism: 44 percent as specific social issues such as abortion, gay marriage, or stem-cell research; 18 percent as issues related to religion; and 17 percent as "family values" or "right and wrong" in general. (To 23 percent, "moral values" meant the candidate's personal integrity.)

The Pew poll also asked some respondents an open-ended question about their top priority in the election, rather than have them pick one from a list. Among Bush voters, 17 percent named "moral values" in general, 6 percent pointed to social issues such as abortion or gay marriage, and 4 percent mentioned the candidate's own moraAls. Since the Pew report grouped these three items under "moral values," adding up to 27 percent of the total, Gallagher asserts that "values voters" were Bush's key constituency, outnumbering the 17 percent whose main concern was terrorism. Yet add Iraq–an issue that most Bush supporters probably see as part of the war on terrorism–and the "national security" vote increases to 28 percent of Bush's total base.

Gallagher concludes that "without the values voters, even a wartime GOP president doesn't have a prayer." But clearly a GOP president needs a lot more than that. Bush would not have prevailed without the backing of some 42 percent of voters who rarely or never go to church, 40 percent of those who favor civil unions or marriage for gays, and a third of those who support legal abortion in all or most circumstances.

If the Republicans started aggressively trying to overturn Roe v. Wade or to outlaw all legal protections for same-sex couples, it would likely alienate many moderates–particularly if national security became a less prominent issue, or a less advantageous one for the GOP. Meanwhile, a pro-choice, pro?gay rights Republican in the Arnold Schwarzenegger mold would lose some "values voters" who would either switch to a more conservative third-party candidate or stay home but would likely pick up a lot of votes from the more libertarian independents uneasy with the influence of the religious right.

Are the "values voters" as scary as they're made out to be? There is no question that much of their agenda is repressive and troubling, at least to a socially liberal secularist such as myself. Yet misconceptions about them and their political role abound as well, and these myths are rarely challenged in the mainstream media. Here are a few of them:

? Traditionalist voters are radicals who want to overturn the American traditions of personal liberty and separation of church and state. In many ways, the cultural conservatives want to do no more than roll back the clock to a fairly recent American past (on such issues as abortion or prayer in public schools) or to stop impending change (on same-sex marriage).

For better or worse, the truth is that for most of U.S. history American democracy coexisted with a fairly high level of public entanglement with religion at the state level as well as regulation of morality. True, many opponents of abortion and especially of gay marriage want to pursue their agenda on a federal level, through the radical step of a constitutional amendment. But even here, the radical change began with federal courts taking major areas of public policy away from state legislatures.

It is also worth noting that while the moralistic zealots of the American "red states" are often contrasted with Europe's tolerant secularists, the lifting of traditional legal strictures on personal conduct in America has in some ways gone much further than in Europe. In most European countries, abortion is severely restricted after the first trimester, and even women having early abortions are required to state their reasons for the procedure (which can include mental distress or economic hardship); in many places, other restrictions apply as well. The American rights-based approach is obviously more respectful of individual choices, but it is also more likely to generate intense social and political conflict by pitting two sets of absolute rights against each other.

? The traditionalists are concerned with controlling other people's behavior, not with living their own lives free from government intervention. Culturally conservative parents are forced to pay taxes to subsidize government-mandated schools that largely teach socially liberal attitudes and that often explicitly criticize "authoritarian" parental values.

What's more, an absolutist interpretation of the "establishment of religion" clause has led to an aggressive campaign to purge public spaces of all traces of even the most voluntary religious expression, from Christmas decorations at a firehouse to a reference to God in a student's high school graduation speech, often leading traditionalists to feel their beliefs are the target of special hostility and exclusion.

? The red-state "values voters" are different from other political groups in that they seek to coercively impose their narrow, spiritually rather than rationally based, moral values on the rest of society. One unwitting challenge to this bit of conventional wisdom comes from liberal Democrats when they indignantly point out that they have moral values too: protection of the environment, aid to the poor, and so on. Democrats, of course, would counter that the "moral" policies they advocate reflect a rational idea of the common welfare. Yet much of the left-of-center political agenda rests on moral judgments that go far beyond the basic postulates of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and equality before the law.

These moral judgments hold, for example, that inequality of income, rather than poverty as such, is a bad thing; that a racially and ethnically diverse student body justifies disparate standards in college admissions; and that wilderness areas should be preserved for their own sake regardless of practical or aesthetic value.

It's ironic that some of the same people who deride the narrow moralism of the "values voters"–Jane Smiley in her now-infamous rant in Slate, for instance–also deplore the "greed" driving Bush's re-election. Greed is to the moralists of the left what sex is to the moralists of the right.

It is worth noting that more conventional sexual moralism of the coercive variety has come from the left–most notably the crusade against sexual harassment in the 1990s. As far as I know, no evangelical Christian group has yet succeeded in getting a judge to enjoin a private employer to ban all sexually themed reading materials and images from the workplace. Feminist attorneys have.

It's quite true that neither the "red" nor the "blue" states have a monopoly on moral values. By the same token, neither side has a monopoly on moral bullying.?