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FIRST-PERSON: Moral values


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, who this October worked his magic on the New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals to help bring baseball’s ultimate prize to Boston after so many years of heartbreak, hurled a curve ball, of sorts, at ABC’s “Good Morning America” host Charles Gibson the day after Boston clinched the series.

In an interview on the improbable Red Sox World Series title, Schilling interjected his belief that Americans should vote for George W. Bush. A flustered Gibson muttered something about the statement being another indication of a divided America and quickly ended the interview. Viewers of the show could see that Gibson was caught off-guard by Schilling’s pitch for the president.

A few days later the national media was just as flummoxed as Yankee and Cardinal batters were by Red Sox pitchers when they began to digest exit polls that reported Americans’ concerns about moral issues. In the exit polling underwritten by the major news networks, respondents indicated “moral values” was the one issue that mattered most in determining who received their vote, ahead of economy and jobs, terrorism and Iraq.

At the risk of reading too much into these exit polls, which were inaccurate in their initial indication that John Kerry was on his way to the White House, it is clear something is going on in America — something that did not make news during the 2000 election, when “moral values” was not even a topic in the exit polls.

What a difference four years make!

By all accounts, the faith factor was the difference in this election. The nation’s mood was captured well in the quote of a 25-year-old voter in Knoxville, Tenn., who told the Associated Press: “I voted for George Bush because I value morality over money.”

And of the approximate one-fifth of voters who pointed to “moral values” as their prime concern, 79 percent of them voted for George Bush.

An election night poll by Fox News in the pivotal state of Ohio revealed 22 percent of Ohioans citing “moral values” as the primary driving issue in the election, a number similar to national exit poll results. Of those voters, 90 percent of them voted for Bush and likely provided the edge he needed to pick up the state’s 20 electoral votes.

One can only speculate what voters think when a questioner uses the term “moral values” — abortion, same-sex “marriage,” embryonic stem cell research, hunger relief, environmental action? It was clear what voters thought on at least one of those issues.

In every one of the 11 states where same-sex “marriage” was on the ballot, voters overwhelmingly voted to affirm the biblical model of marriage. Even those Americans without strong biblical faith sense something is wrong when we have to debate what the institution of marriage is supposed to look like.

The underlying story, of course, is the culture war being quietly waged in communities across America. It is a story the national news media can’t be blamed for overlooking. Most of them live in the “blue” counties where the predominant culture is comfortable with the maxim “anything goes.” Yet a majority of Americans recognize the agenda of those who want to redefine what marriage looks like and who justify the killing of pre-born children to serve the needs of others. And on Election Day, they made their views known.

While the nightly news was full of charges and countercharges on the war in Iraq, job loss and healthcare, within hundreds of thousands of homes, moral values as an issue was supplanting the campaign issues the news desks thought all Americans wanted to focus on.

Evidently off the radar screen of the national media, there is a cultural struggle going on for the moral high ground in this culture, and conservative, traditional-values Americans of faith in all of our denominational manifestations made a significant, strategic advance in this election. Security Moms aside, a lot of moms and dads are concerned rightly about where our nation is headed.

In the aftermath of the election, political prognosticators are picking up the pieces and trying to figure out what happened. More than one has suggested the nation is undergoing a rightward shift with George Bush as the benefactor. Yet this is not a new phenomenon. The nation has been moving to the right for more than two decades as all surveys on religious practice and beliefs have shown. America is becoming a more religious country, and that movement has been expressed in traditional religious values.

One of the keys to the president’s re-election is that throughout the campaign, he played to his base. Despite calls by many to run a more centrist campaign, the president stayed true to his colors and it paid off. To make a twist on a charge the president leveled against his opponent, George W. Bush had a record and he did not attempt to hide from it. From the election results, it appears many Americans are just fine with that.

Prayer vigils for the election and the nation were the norm at many churches in America. Southern Baptist churches such as Dakota Southern Baptist Fellowship in North Dakota, First Baptist Hendersonville in Tennessee and Prestonwood Baptist in Texas joined thousands of others praying for a clear and God-honoring culmination to the 2004 election.

Faith was clearly a pivotal undercurrent in this presidential campaign.

In the third presidential debate, John Kerry said his “faith affects everything that I do.” He said his faith is why he fights against poverty, for a cleaner environment, and for equality and justice. But before he said that, he said he can’t “legislate or transfer to another American citizen my article of faith.” He said he couldn’t legislate his “article of faith” on those who don’t “share that article of faith.”

If your faith does not impact all areas of your life, then it becomes more a question of moral preference versus moral conviction. A convictional faith consumes you; it impacts everything you do, including what you do to or with other people. If you are a politician who is a person of convictional faith, you shouldn’t be able to draw a line between your personal faith and your work in the public policy area. A person of convictional faith is a changed person whose policy decisions, like all of life’s decisions, will be informed by his or her convictions. That is true whether you have faith in Jesus, in Buddha or in the earth goddess, Gaia.

For nearly four years, much of America watched George W. Bush and saw that he was a man of genuine, convictional faith. He never sought to impose the particulars of his faith on the country, but he was not shy in admitting his faith provided him direction and solace. He said he knew Americans were praying for him. He said he could feel their prayers and those prayers were important to him. In his address to the nation the day after the election, Bush talked about the “values of family and faith.”

A majority of American voters appear to prefer a candidate who looks to his faith for guidance and support in every area of his life rather than adopting a cafeteria approach of preferring to be informed by one’s faith in some areas, but not others. During his first term in office, the president delivered what many regard as the moral leadership necessary for this time in history.

Despite the hundreds of campaign stops, few Americans had the opportunity to look personally into the eyes of the president or feel the squeeze of his hand along a rope line. Yet in his speech and manner on television, they saw a sincere man they could trust — not just Americans who practice an evangelical Christian faith, but a wider group who know there are those, other than terrorists, who have declared war on their families.

In an election that may have set voter participation records, voters from the evangelical faith tradition apparently showed up in record numbers. Interestingly, at least six states — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia — saw historic proportions of voter turnout. Worth noting is that each of those states has a high percentage of evangelical voters, particularly Southern Baptists.

Nearly 4 out of 5 (77%) white, conservative evangelicals gave their votes to Bush. When the exit polls subdivided the sample to only those who attend church weekly, the percentage for the president leaped to 95 percent. Yet to assert it was only Americans of Christian faith who elected the president would be a serious overstatement.

In other words, while white evangelicals cannot elect a president by themselves; it is impossible for a conservative presidential candidate to put together a winning coalition without their exuberant support.

However, it is more than just conservative evangelicals who sense the poor moral health of our nation and cast their ballot for Bush. More properly this should be seen as a decisive victory for people of traditional religious values, be they conservative Protestant, practicing traditional Catholic, orthodox or observant Jew, or traditional Muslim.

History tells us elections do not cause societal change, they reflect it. America may have awakened to the fact that the cultural envelope has been pushed too far and the moral fiber of our nation is worn thin in many spots. What this election may signify is a critical mass of traditional religious awakening in America.

Consequently, many Americans voted their values on Nov. 2. Now comes the even more difficult process of truly living out those values and building an America that respects human life, cares for those in need, seeks racial and ethnic reconciliation, and is eager to dispense liberty and justice to all. That is an America God will bless.
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Richard Land is president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

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  • Richard Land