A flawed exit poll question has sparked an enormous and important political debate in America, one that will be with us far beyond this election. Asked to name the most important issue that influenced their vote, 22 percent of voters chose "moral values," just edging out terrorism and the economy. That poll result has sparked a firestorm in the media and in Washingtons political circles about who gets or doesnt get the "moral values issue." Conventional wisdom holds that the Republicans do get it and the Democrats dont, and that the "moral values" answer on the survey simply indicated voters who are against abortion and gay marriage.
But of course a Christian who cares deeply about peace likely would have checked the war in Iraq (one of the choices) instead of moral values, and a Catholic coordinator of a food pantry likely would have checked the surveys closest thing to poverty, which would have been the economy or health care. The single "moral values" question was a whole different kind of choice to the rest of the "issues," ignoring the moral values inherent in those other concerns.
An important poll taken several days later bore that out and actually had the war in Iraq rated as the highest issue of moral importance for those who voted this time. The greatest moral "crisis" was named as "greed and materialism," followed closely by "poverty and economic injustice." (See "Seeking Common Ground).
Almost a year ago, I wrote in Sojourners and in an op-ed piece for The New York Times that too many Democrats still wanted to restrict religion to the private sphere and were very uncomfortable with the language of faith and values even when applied to their own agenda. And that Republicans wanted to narrowly restrict religion to a short list of hot-button social issues and obstruct its application to other matters that would threaten their agenda.
Well, after a year of political campaigning we ended up at about the same place. While some Democrats are now realizing the importance of faith, values, and cultural issues, a strong group of "secular fundamentalists" still fight to keep moral and spiritual language out of the liberal discussion. And while some Republicans would like to see an expanded application of faith, the "religious fundamentalists" still want to restrict religious values to gay marriage and abortion, and a very smart group of Republican strategists effectively appealed to both the faith and the fears of an important conservative religious constituency.
Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne covered our "God is not a Republican or a Democrat" campaign as a real sign of hope. Days after the election, he said, "Whats required is a sustained and intellectually serious effort by religious moderates and progressives to insist that social justice and inclusion are moral values and that war and peace are life issues. As my wife and I prepared our three kids for school the day after the day after, we shared our outrage that we in Blue America are cast as opponents of family values simply because we dont buy the right wings agenda. No political faction can be allowed to assert a monopoly on the family."
A New Vision
OUR VISIONa progressive and prophetic vision of faith and politicswas not running in this election. Neither candidate championed the poor as a "moral value" or made the war in Iraq a clearly religious matter. And neither advocated a "consistent ethic of human life" beyond single issue voting. The ways in which the visions of both parties are morally and politically incomplete must now be taken up by people of faith. That can best be done by reaching into both the conservative Christian communities that voted for George Bush and more liberal Christian communities that voted for John Kerry.
Its time to spark a real debate in this country over what the most important "religious issues" and "moral values" in politics areand how broadly and deeply they are understood. Religion doesnt fall neatly into right and left categories. If there were ever candidates running with a strong set of personal moral values and a commitment to be pro-poor and pro-peace, it could build many bridges to the other side. Personal and social responsibility are both at the heart of religion, and the two together could make a very powerful and compelling political vision for the future of our bitterly divided nation.
In our deeply polarized country, either political outcome would have crushed the hopes of almost half the population. So perhaps the most important post-election role for the religious community is to contribute to political healing and reconciliation. In the spirit of Americas greatest religious leader, Martin Luther King Jr., the religious community could help a divided nation find common ground by moving to higher ground. And we should hold ourselves and both political parties accountable to the challenge of the biblical prophet Micah to "do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God."
In George W. Bushs second term, he could return to the promise of his early and forgotten "compassionate conservatism," offering something more than "faith-based initiatives": a serious plan for dramatic poverty reduction and the resources to back it up.
Now having won the election, Bush could safely take some of John Kerrys advice for significantly involving the international community in helping to achieve both security and elections in Iraq and begin to withdraw the American occupation whose continuation will only bring disaster. And with the death of Yasser Arafat, the American president could join his English cousin Tony Blair in pushing both Israeli and Palestinian leaders toward a fair two-state peace solution. But if he doesnt move in those directions, George Bush may find that a significant part of his opposition will come from other Christians who are acting out of their deepest "moral values."
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.