A Watershed Election

The 2006 midterm elections mark a significant turning point from the Religious Right’s hold on evangelical voters. Moderate, and some conservative, Christians—especially evangelicals and Catholics—want a moral agenda broader than only abortion and same-sex marriage. The national exit polls showed 6 percent more Catholics and 5 percent more white evangelicals supported Democratic candidates in House races than in the 2004 elections. Eight percent fewer evangelicals voted for Republicans than did for President Bush in 2004. Many were concerned about poverty, the war in Iraq, strengthening families, and protecting the environment as important moral values.

An exit poll commissioned by Faith in Public Life and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and conducted by Zogby International showed why that shift occurred. Iraq was considered the “moral issue that most affected your vote” by 45.8 percent of voters, almost six times as many voters as abortion and almost five times as many as same-sex marriage. Iraq was the top moral issue among Catholics, born-again Christians, and frequent church attendees. Poverty and economic justice topped the list of “most urgent moral problem[s] in American culture.”

Bob Casey, a Catholic, pro-life Democrat, won a senate seat in Pennsylvania because his campaign took both religion and abortion off the table. And in Ohio, ordained Methodist minister Ted Strickland defeated the Religious Right’s favorite candidate, Kenneth Blackwell, for governor. Strickland’s authentic Christian faith made it impossible for Blackwell to claim that God was on his side (a traditional Republican assertion). When the Republicans failed to win a religious advantage in these races, other issues—such as the war in Iraq and the economy—helped to defeat the Republican candidates. Also in Ohio, Democrat Sherrod Brown defeated Sen. Mike DeWine with a distinctively populist, faith-friendly campaign. The same was true in other races around the country.

When Democrats can run authentically as people of faith, they can beat back the idolatrous claims of the Religious Right that God is only on their side. And when Democrats take a more morally sensible position on issues like abortion, they do better than liberal Democrats have done. These results are bad news for the “religious fundamentalists” who have far too much influence in the Republican Party, and for the “secular fundamentalists” who have far too much influence in the Democratic Party. The Religious Right, who seek to impose the doctrines of a political theocracy on their fellow citizens, and secular fundamentalists, who wish to deprive the public square of needed moral and spiritual values often shaped by faith, both lost. This election saw many winning Democrats who spoke openly of their faith and how it informed their political views.

These results are good news for the majority of Americans who are alienated by the political extremes of right and left and are hungry for a new “moral center” for our public life. A number of candidates elected are social conservatives on issues of life and family, economic populists, and committed to a new direction in Iraq. It proved to be a winning combination.

ONE OF THE CENTRAL issues in this election was the continuing violence and death in Iraq. As of Election Day, 2,836 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis had died in this disastrous war. The people have now spoken, and there is a mandate to change the course of U.S. policy in Iraq. The president acknowledged this with his announcement of the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld the day after the election. The first order of business for the new Congress and the administration must be seeking alternatives to the current disastrous course in Iraq. Indeed, the week after the election, Democrats promised that among their first items of business in the new Congress would be stepped-up congressional oversight of the war—and a demand for a schedule for reducing the number of troops in Iraq.

Voters also recognized that while the economy is in good shape for some, there are still too many people left out, especially working families. It is significant that in all six states where an initiative to raise the minimum wage was on the ballot, it passed, in five cases by overwhelming margins. In each of these minimum wage campaigns, people of faith and many congregations were vitally involved. Fair wages for workers is a biblical issue and a family values issue. Voters said that work needs to work, and that if you work hard and full-time in America you shouldn’t be poor. The new Democratic leadership said it will pass a minimum wage increase in the first 100 hours of the new Congress, and in his post-election press conference President Bush said this was “an area where I believe we can ... find common ground.”

Finally, corruption in Congress played a major role in the election. Three Republican members of Congress have been indicted this year because of financial and political scandals. One is in prison. Others, from both parties, are under investigation. Congress refuses to resolve the scandal of pork barrel spending and the ability of special interest money to determine policy decisions.

WHEN A PARTY has been in power too long, just staying in power becomes more important than truth-telling, which was unfortunately also true when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. According to the Associated Press, more than 40 percent of evangelical voters said corruption and scandal were extremely important in their vote. We need political leaders, of both parties, who believe in the importance of integrity, of humility, of honesty, and a commitment to the common good—and a willingness to challenge their own party’s desire for power at the expense of moral principle.

This election did not establish the kingdom of God—that was not on the ballot. But by making the war in Iraq and growing economic inequality two of the top issues, the vote now has the potential to strengthen the common good. And now that we’ve voted, we must be at the doorstep of politicians to hold them accountable on the issues that arise from a broad biblical agenda. Important matters are on the agenda of the new Congress, and our voices must now be heard more than ever.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners. Parts of this column appeared on the God’s Politics blog (www.godspolitics.com), hosted by Beliefnet.

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