The Story of the Morals

Karl Rove wants you to believe that the 2004 presidential election was decided based on 'moral values.' In an interview with the New York Times on November 10, Rove identified gay marriage as an issue that had proved more important than many politicians suspected. Support for constitutional amendments prohibiting marriage between individuals of the same sex was "part and parcel of a broader fabric where this year moral values ranked higher than they traditionally do," Rove said, adding: "I think people would be well advised to pay attention to what the American people are saying." Rove's assertion seemed to be supported by exit polls, which showed that 80 percent of those who indicated 'moral values' was their greatest concern voted for Bush.

People like the Rev. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and James C. Dobson from the Colorado-based Focus on the Family (FOF) would like you to believe that 'moral values' decided the election, as well. Throughout the campaign, Land and Dobson were frequent participants in a weekly conference call with Rove, Tim Goeglein, head of the White House Office of Public Liaison, Ken Mehlman, or Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition and the Bush campaign's southeast regional coordinator.

Land heads the "public policy arm" (i.e. lobby) of the SBC which boasts more than 16 million members. A longtime Bush associate, Land was among the group that met with Bush the day he was inaugurated for his second term as governor in 1999 when he declared "I believe that God wants me to be president."

Dobson's group bills itself as a "nondenominational religious organization dedicated to the preservation of the family." It produces radio shows, magazines, books, audio cassettes, films, and videos promoting a right wing agenda that is staunchly anti-gay, anti-choice, and opposed to separation of church and state. Planned Parenthood's profile of FOF notes that the radical agenda is often disguised behind "broad cultural programming." Dobson rose to fame in part because of his book Dare to Discipline, which advocates corporal punishment as part of raising a child "of faith." He owns his own for-profit company, James Dobson, Inc. (JDI), which as of 2000 was paying $5,000 per month to Focus for "visibility." For the 2004 presidential election Dobson set up a separate nonprofit organization, Focus on Family Action, which organized six "stadium sized" rallies, in battleground states, according to the Washington Post, in which Christians were urged to "vote your values."


An ABC News headline recently trumpeted "Evangelicals to Bush: Payback Time." "I believe Our Lord elected our president and I believe he put him in office and it is my prayer that he will sustain him in office," a parishioner at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, where pastor James Kennedy's sermons are broadcast to 3 million homes, told ABC News. Yet the share of voters who chose a candidate primarily based on moral or ethical issues was actually lower this year than in the two previous presidential elections (a fact that apparently escaped the attention of US media, but was duly noted by the UK Economist.) In the 2000 election 35% of voters said moral or ethical issues were most important, and in 1996 40% did. Moreover, in 2000 an additional 14% and in 1996 9% put abortion at the top of the list -- an option that was not available on the 2004 exit polls.

In the previous two presidential elections, the Economist notes, there was no "war on terrorism" nor had there just been a recession, so "one could argue that it was remarkable that even a fifth of voters were still concerned about moral matters when so many other big issues were at stake." An alternate interpretation is that "the war on terrorism has not fundamentally altered, or made irrelevant, the cultural, moral and religious divisions that have polarized America for so long."

In 2000, 15m evangelical Protestants voted. They accounted for 23% of the electorate, and 71% of them voted for Mr Bush. This time, estimates Luis Lugo, the director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, they again accounted for about 23% of the electorate—which means that evangelicals did not increase their share of the vote. But overall turnout was much higher, and 78% of the evangelicals who voted, voted for Mr Bush. That works out at roughly 3.5m extra votes for him. Mr Bush's total vote rose by 9m (from 50.5m in 2000 to 59.5m), so evangelical Protestants alone accounted for more than a third of his increased vote.

The change, then, says the Economist is not that the evangelicals' share of the vote has increased, but that "evangelicals have become much more important to the Republican Party. According to a study conducted for the Pew Forum by John Green of the University of Akron, Ohio, the proportion of evangelicals calling themselves Republicans has risen from 48% to 56% over the past 12 years, making them among the most solid segments of the party's base."

The Economist refers to the evangelical movement as "decentralized," noting that people like James Dobson have "no official institutional standing, and only limited moral authority." The observation echoes, and perhaps understates, conclusions reached by UC Berkeley's Christian Smith in Christian America. Smith analyzed data collected between 1995 and 1997 by twelve sociologists, including hundreds of personal interviews, and a telephone survey of more than 2,500 churchgoing Protestants. Smith found that not only is the evangelical movement decentralized, but that some significant differences of opinion on social and political issues exist among people who identify themselves as evangelicals, fundamentalists, and (theologically) conservative Protestants.

Historically, the term "evangelical" was the name that the first Reformed and Lutheran churches gave themselves after the Reformation and the break with Catholicism. Luther's key innovations were a renewed emphasis on St. Augustine's notion that salvation was based on faith not deeds, and a focus on the individual that was consistent with Erasmus and other humanists. Evangelical was later applied to any Protestant denomination that adhered to one of the ecumenical creeds (e.g. the Nicene creed) which emphasized preaching the Gospel.

In the early 20th century the rise of science was accompanied by "an attempt to adjust religious ideas to the needs of contemporary society," and in particular, to show that science was compatible with and complementary to religion. This approach to religion was termed modernism or liberalism. As scientific methods were applied to the study of the Bible, scholars in Germany concluded that variations in language proved that Moses did not write the first five books of the Old Testament, that the accounts of the Israelite conquest in Joshua and Judges were inaccurate, etc. Concerning the New Testament they concluded that the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were not written by the apostles, or even eyewitnesses to events. The modernists regarded the Bible as no longer a source of timeless truth, but rather as a complex document whose writings reflected the social, cultural, and political contexts in which they were written.

A series of pamphlets circulated between 1910 and 1914, called The Fundamentals, gave their name to the "fundamentalist" movement. Fundamentalists asserted that the modernist challenges to the inerrancy of the Bible denied the central Christian doctrine, i.e. that the only way to gain salvation was through Jesus Christ. Following the views of Charles Hodge of Princeton, they asserted that the Bible could not contain errors because it was the product of men who merely transcribed words dictated by God. Fundamentalists suggested that modernism was as likely to lead to eternal damnation as non-Christian religions.

In the early 20th century some evangelicals had participated in the "Social Gospel" movement, which provided impetus to the progressive movements of that period, such as labor organizing. But fundamentalists viewed World War I as evidence that the social gospel had failed and during the 1920s shifted their political support to conservative, pro-business, and laissez-faire policies. The importance of individual conversion experience was emphasized, and fundamentalists promoted a lifestyle that excluded drinking, smoking, playing cards, and attending movies. Fundamentalists also succeeded in passing laws in thirteen states prohibiting the teaching of evolution.

In 1916 Congress passed a law outlawing child labor. The Supreme Court overturned the law and in 1924 Congress passed and President Calvin Coolidge signed a constitutional amendment that would have granted Congress power to pass child labor laws. Protestant Fundamentalists in the South joined with conservative Catholic bishops in denouncing the amendment on the grounds that it undermined the family and was a government intrusion into private matters. Protestant churches were also major proponents of the movement to prohibit alcoholic beverages. The prohibition amendment was very popular, and was ratified by 80 percent majorities in the legislatures of 46 of the 48 states. But it was repealed in a convention in 1933 because the measure was so stringent (even outlawing weak beer), inadequate funds and personnel were provided for enforcement, many in the middle class viewed prohibition as an infringement on personal freedom, and the measure was identified with conservative Protestants who, it was believed, wanted to impose their lifestyle on the nation. Church members and others concluded from the episode that morality could not be legislated.

In the late 20s the Federal Council of Churches, which had been formed in 1908, helped promote unity among Protestant denominations. Some denominations, however, established an alternative group called the National Association of Evangelical Churches. Members of the latter group rejected the modernist tendencies of the Federal Council (later the National Council of Churches) and also the separatist tendencies of some of the more extreme Fundamentalists. Members of the Association, including, notably, the Southern Baptists, became identified as neo-Evangelicals. They rejected the National Council of Churches' social agenda -- ignoring or opposing the civil rights movement, peace action, ordination of women, etc. -- and focused on individual piety. But unlike the more extreme Fundamentalists, they accepted fashion, television, and celebrated sexual fulfillment and prosperity. In a model not unlike what the political right has used in the last 40 years, the neo-Evangelicals spent years building a media empire including the periodical Christianity Today, radio and television programming, and direct-mail fund raising.

... and the Christian Right

Emerging from this varied history, it's not surprising, then that people who identify themselves as "evangelical" may misunderstand the label, may not entirely subscribe to evangelical theology, or may not even attend church. In Christian Smith's research, he encountered among conservative Protestants a wide variety of views on social issues, the role of religion in politics, etc. For example, Smith asked interviewees whether they thought the US was ever a Christian nation. About 10 percent said no, citing reasons ranging from "I don't believe there are Christian nations, only Christian people," to "I think we were actually based more on tolerance .... Christianity is not elective, democratic society." Another 30 percent didn't know. Smith notes that these responses, "revealed little nostalgic hankering for a Christian-governed past," but rather suggested that the statement might or might not have been true, depending on the definition of Christian. "I think there were some Christian men who helped start and formulate America. I don't know if I can necessarily call it a Christian nation." Other evangelicals believe that the US is still a Christian nation, one noting, for example, that Congress is opened with a prayer. And some suggested that the US should not be a Christian nation, as one man who said "If you label the the US as Christian, then whatever they do is Christian and biblical, and that, I think, is misleading. Many of the policies we practice are not Christian, and to say they are is deceptive."

Smith notes that a central concern of many people regarding conservative Protestants in the US is a fear that they want to impose their religious and moral views on everyone else. Yet this concern may derive more from the rhetoric of the Christian Right than the views of the majority of evangelicals. Smith summarizes the rhetoric of the Christian Right as follows:

America was founded as a Christian nation and prospered under God's blessing. Having recently abandoned its commitment to God's unchanging truth and morality, however, America is now suffering social breakdown. Unless America repents and returns to "traditional" values and morals, America will suffer God's judgment. Turning America around from its anti-Christian moral drift will require the active struggle of Christians and supportive allies -- the moral majority of Americans -- against hostile forces comprised of secular humanists, feminists, the liberal mass media, and so on At the very least, traditional Christians, whose views are typically excluded and attacked by liberal cultural elites, should insist on a place for their voice in public debates.

Smith's analysis of extensive survey data shows that conservative Protestants "do tend to be significantly more supportive of some of the claims of the Christian Right than other Americans...." But about half do not believe that Christian morality should be legislated, 79% do not believe that women should leave the running of the country to men, and 71% do not believe that abortion should be illegal in all cases. Moreover, while evangelicals and fundamentalists are more likely than other Protestants to believe that Christians should be trying to change American society, even if such efforts cause conflict, the vast majority (68-74%) do not believe their attempts at social influence should cause conflict. Similar large majorities believe that everyone should have the right to live by their own morality, even if it is not Christian. An even larger majority do not believe that public schools should teach Christian values and morals, and do not blame schools' problems on secular humanism, or secular values and morals.

Conservative Protestants are more likely to think that liberals, feminists, and atheists have too much influence in America; the majority of conservative Protestants, however, do not believe that these groups have too much influence. Perhaps significant in the context of the recent election, the majority of conservative Protestants expresses this concern only about gay rights groups. Conservative Protestants are just as accepting as other Americans of other religions and races. "The statistics also show that large numbers of conservative Protestants disagree among themselves over most of these questions," Smith concludes.

Smith also found that one-half of conservative Protestants say they have not heard much about the Christian Right, and more than two-thirds do not consider themselves supporters. Nonetheless, the Economist notes "self-appointed church leaders are queuing up to claim credit for the election victory and to insist on a bigger role in government. Mr Dobson told ABC's 'This Week' programme that 'this president has two years, or more broadly the Republican Party has two years, to implement those policies, or certainly four, or I believe they'll pay a price in the next election.'"

For opponents of Mr Bush, and also for many socially liberal Republicans, the election results and the trumpeted evangelical ambitions point to a big reversal: the victory of aggressive social conservatism over the small-government tradition in which morality is not legislated. It could, indeed, turn out to be something like this, but it need not. The wide variety of different opinions held by Mr Bush's religious supporters give the president, and his new administration, a lot of leeway, if they choose to look for it.

A New Puritanism?

The Guardian's George Monbiot suggests that Bush's wooing of and support by evangelical Christians signifies a resurfacing of Puritan ideology. " The enrichment of the elite and impoverishment of the lower classes requires a justifying ideology if it is to be sustained. In the US this ideology has to be a religious one. Bush's government is forced back to the doctrines of Puritanism as an historical necessity,"

Following R.H. Tawney, Monbiot suggests that Puritanism was a reaction to the rapidly expanding commerce, particularly internationalization, that took place in the 17th century in England. Dissolution of monasteries in England gave rise to a commercial class that initially was focused on "enclosing" -- i.e. seizing land and evicting its inhabitants. This was followed by land speculation which led to the creation of financial markets, arbitrage, and "almost all the vices we now associate with the Age of Enron."

In Tawney's view, Puritanism attracted the new commercial classes, as it offered -- by way of Calvinism -- a theological justification for capitalism. "Success in business became a sign of spiritual grace," Monbiot writes, providing proof, as one Puritan preacher wrote, that "God has blessed his trade."

Critics of Tawney -- and Max Weber who held similar views of the Puritans -- have suggested that it is an oversimplification to characterize them as equating wealth with virtue. As Margo Todd of Vanderbilt describes in Christian Humanism and the Puritan Social Order, Puritan attitudes toward work, wealth, welfare, and social status owed as much to the Christian humanist tradition as to John Calvin. The notion that labor in a secular vocation was no less holy than a clerical calling was held by the Catholic humanist Erasmus and his colleagues. Industry was valued not just as a way for individuals to avoid sin, but because it benefited the common good. Idleness was seen as more than just an individual failing; it was an offense against the common good. Erasmus believed idleness was the source of most evil in the state.

The Calvinist view that prosperity was not in itself evil may have its roots in Christian humanism, as well. The 16th century humanists decried ill-gotten profit, but otherwise commended it as contributing to the common good. They also rejected the medieval hierarchy of being that had made the successful businessman, no matter how ethical, a second class citizen in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Monbiot quotes Tawney characterizing the Puritans as having "formulated a radical new theory of social obligation, which maintained that helping the poor created idleness and spiritual dissolution, divorcing them from God." Other historians have taken issue with this picture, suggesting that what the Puritans were rejecting was monastic almsgiving and personal doles to beggars, which were demonstrably ineffective in reducing poverty. These practices were regarded as poor stewardship. Todd writes, "The humanists' concern for discriminate charity was deeply rooted in their compassion for the genuine poor, rather than in an isolated impulse to repress beggars and punish vagrancy." The Elizabethan poor laws, which were praised by the Puritans as 'wholesome laws', were influenced by the work of Juan Luis Vives in Bruges, Belgium. The objective of this system was to reform the poor through education and discipline.

Again applying the principle of stewardship, the Puritans were concerned that their alms might be wasted if they fell into the wrong hands. This led to a categorization of the poor into the deserving and undeserving. In Norwich, England in 1570, for example the deserving poor included the physically disabled, untrained young people, the unemployed and the underemployed. The undeserving poor included loiterers, vagabonds, and healthy beggars. Personal charity and begging were outlawed; a poor tax was assessed on all households, with the proceeds distributed to the deserving poor, while the undeserving poor were trained and given work. If they refused, they were punished and expelled from the city. Educational and vocational training was a key component of poor relief in London in the 1640s. Other innovations included no-interest loans to poor artisans, and providing a dole to under-employed poor individuals living in their own homes (rather than in a poor house). These developments were predicated on the successful Christian humanist efforts secularize charity. They also grew out of the Christian humanist principle that employment of the poor was more beneficial to the commonwealth than punishment or doles alone.

Todd also notes that admiration for industry, vocation, and discipline was shared by 16th century Anglicans. This was a Protestant and not merely Puritan work ethic, and the goal was the common good. Puritan preacher William Perkins wrote, "Christians may not live idly, and give ourselves to riot and gaming, but labor to serve God and our country, in some profitable course of life." Unprofitable occupations were condemned, including not only vagabonds, but monks and friars, dealers in luxuries, and profligate aristocrats.

It is true that a key difference between the medieval and Puritan world views is that the role of the entrepreneur was sanctified. In Scotland, particularly, Calvinist preachers may have encouraged entrepreneurial callings. Like Erasmus, the Protestants justified business loans at interest on the grounds that they would stimulate business that would benefit the community.

Puritans were also concerned with business ethics. The writings of one representative Puritan merchant demonstrate great concern with avoiding false advertising, or manipulating prices, etc. Work and wealth were not as important as godly living.

Todd writes, "...[T]he focus of all this activity was to be not wealth, but commonwealth." So, although the Puritan preachers argued that work ought to be productive, and acknowledged that hard work and thrift were likely to bring prosperity, the profit was to be for the community rather than the individual. Accumulation of excess wealth was "not only a temptation to sin; it was a blatant denial of God's providence.... If wealth was not necessarily a sign of divine approval, neither was it intrinsically bad.... If properly acquired and well-spent, wealth could in fact be a great boon to the commonwealth."

Monbiot admits that "... the Puritans differed from Bush's people in that they worshipped production but not consumption." Bush's associates may owe more of an ideological debt to Adam Smith than to our Puritan forebears. But, says Monbiot "... this is just a different symptom of the same disease."

Other Values

The Guardian's David Aaronovitch suggests that a close study of the election results reveals that economic issues were more important to voters that 'moral values.' People who had lost their jobs were more likely to vote for Kerry, more people had not lost jobs, and they voted for Bush. People who felt that their financial position had improved or remained the same voted for Bush, and there were more of them than felt that it had deteriorated.

The 22% of Bush voters who indicated they had made a decision based on 'moral values' represented only 17% of total voters; 83% of the voters did not consider 'moral values' a primary concern. Voter views on abortion in this election were similar to those in 2000: 55 percent broadly in favor, while 42 percent are opposed. A majority of voters either supported gay marriage or civil union; those supporting civil union favored Bush by five percent.

Moreover, Bush's victory while clear, was close. The vote in Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and particularly Ohio was extremely close -- far from what in Britain they call a safe seat, meaning 60% or more. Large cities voted predominantly for Kerry, and rural areas predominantly for Bush, but small cities were split quite evenly. More Hispanics, Blacks, Jews, Catholics, and urban residents voted for Bush this time around. Forty-five percent of Bush voters characterized themselves as moderate or liberal. Concern over a divided nation may be misplaced -- perhaps even encouraged by Rove and others who need divisiveness to keep their base energized.

The Wall Street Journal's John Harwood calls 'moral values' the "surprise interpretation that gained currency from the star-crossed 2004 exit polls." The "binding agent" for the coalition of voters that supported Bush was the so-called war on terrorism. In Harwood's view, George H.W. Bush's loss, followed by that of Bob Dole were helped along by the end of the Cold War, which deprived Republicans of the one issue that had enabled them to unify a disparate coalition: national security.

The percentage of white conservative Christian voters in 1996 was nearly the same as in 2004, or about 25%. These voters opposed abortion and believe that American culture was on the decline. But their priorities were different from those of economic conservatives, and some moderate Republicans found them intolerant. In 1992 Pat Buchanan declared that the "culture war" would be a problem for Republicans. Bush's "compassionate conservative" rhetoric walked the tight-rope between these constituencies in 2000, but his administration was long on conservatism and short on compassion -- in economic and social issues.

"What changed the political equation this fall, as it had in the Republicans' midterm triumph of 2002, was the return of national security as a front-rank concern," says Harwood. In 1996, 4% of voters pointed to "foreign affairs" as the issue most important to them; in 2000 the number rose to 12%. In 2004 19% of voters identified terrorism as their chief concern, and Harwood suggests the number would have been higher had not the ambiguous "moral values" been included on the exit polls. Of the 54% of voters who said they were safer now than four years ago, 80% chose Bush. Pollsters from both parties concurred. "This was a security election," Republican pollster Bill McInturff told Harwood. "Terrorism was what the election was about," agreed Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. As Harwood notes,
"the values debate won't matter" if the Democrats can't project credibility on national security issues.

A downside for Republicans is that much of the party's edge on national security may be connected in voters' minds with personal qualities of George W. Bush. While some likely Republican candidates in 2008, such as Rudy Giuliani, and John McCain, may be able to retain the national security advantage, others, like Sen. Bill Frist, may not. Some of the strains visible in the failure of the intelligence reform measures to pass Congress and the spat over Sen. Arlen Specter's assumption of the Judiciary Committee chair may worsen as the party starts to consider its future after W.

Progressive Values

Harwood's and Aaronovitch's analyses suggest that those who urge Democratic accommodation with "spiritual politics" by, for example, making concessions on abortion or gay marriage, are misguided. Nonetheless, as Aaronovitch and others point out, the Republicans have spent the 40 years since losing the 1964 presidential election discussing policy, setting up foundations, refining their ideas and language for political debate, and leading the national debate on economics and foreign affairs. "Informed by this process, the party - as much an awkward coalition as any other - has associated itself with modernity, optimism and clarity. Challenging that position is the long-term task of America's center left."

The Republicans have a 40-year head start on the task of clarifying their issues, and at least as importantly, linking them to a set of values that resonate with the American people. But as George Lakoff, who has written frequently on the need for progressives to undertake the same exercise, has said, progressives have science on their side.

In a recent essay that appeared in The Nation and elsewhere, Lakoff highlighted progressive values and the policies that follow from them.

  • care and responsibility
  • fairness and equality
  • freedom and courage
  • fulfillment in life
  • opportunity and community
  • cooperation and trust
  • honesty and openness

Lakoff's basic thesis is that moral values are "idealized family values projected onto the nation." Progressive values derive from a family that sees its role as the nurturing of children, and raising them to be nurturers. There are two complementary aspects to nurturing: empathy and responsibility.

Parents who empathize with their children will want them to have strong protection, fair and equal treatment and fulfillment in life. Fulfillment implies opportunity, which in turn requires prosperity. A family needs a community, so community building and service are required. A community also requires cooperation, which implies openness, honesty and trust.

Protection means not just physical protection, but environmental protection, worker protection, consumer protection, and "safety nets" like Social Security and Medicare. Equality means political and social equality, regardless of wealth, race, religion, or gender. Openness includes open government and a free press.

Swing voters use the progressive's nurturant parent world view and the conservatives' "strict father" world view in different parts of their lives. The challenge to Democrats is to "activate" in Lakoff's terminology, the progressive world view in the swing voters. The way to do this, says Lakoff, is not to change your position on issues to move toward your opponent's position, but to speak to your base with conviction in language that evokes the images and associations of the world view and values that are at the core of your beliefs. Conservatives know this, says Lakoff. When liberals move to the right on issues, they not only alienate their base, they activate their opponents models in swing voters.

The only way to trump their moral values is with our own more traditional and more patriotic moral values. Proclaim them and live them, and we will find that there are many more than 55 million of us.


Nagourney, Adam "'Moral Values' Carried Bush, Rove Says" NY Times 10 Nov. 2004

Cooperman, Alan and Thomas B. Edsall "Evangelicals Say They Led Charge For the GOP" Washington Post 8 Nov. 2004

Land, Richard. Interview. "The Jesus Factor" Frontline. PBS. 29 Apr. 2004.

"The triumph of the religious right" Economist. 11 Nov. 2004

Kee, Howard C., et al. Christianity: A Social and Cultural History 2nd ed. New York:Prentice Hall. 1998.

Smith, Christian Christian America? Berkeley: University of California Press. 2000.

Monbiot, George "Puritanism of the rich" Guardian (UK) 9 Nov. 2004

Aaronovitch, David "No, it wasn't God" Guardian (UK) 7 Nov. 2004

Waldman, Steven and John Green "It Wasn't Just (Or Even Mostly) the 'Religious Right'" Beliefnet. 5 Nov. 2004

Todd, Margo. Christian Humanism and the Puritan Social Order Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1987.

Lakoff, George "Our Moral Values" The Nation. 18 Nov. 2004.

Harwood, John "Terrorism Worries, Not 'Moral Values,' Decided Election" Captial Journal. Wall Street Journal 24 Nov. 2004.

See also: Plannned Parenthood's profiles of anti-choice organizations and Frank Rich's 2004: The Year of 'The Passion'.