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Redefining 'Values Voters'

by Alexia Kelley

As the race for the White House heats up and the role of faith in politics is again back on the front page, it's time to debunk a myth that the only "values voters" are Christians who preach the Gospel of the Republican Party.

It's offensive to people of faith, and all citizens who bring their values into the voting booth, to assume that one political party or religion has a monopoly on morality. And it's irresponsible for the media to perpetuate old narratives now being rewritten by a powerful movement of religious Americans who are embracing a more robust vision of the common good.

Even as Christian evangelicals are increasingly diverse politically and speak out boldly about global poverty and climate change, exit polls are still stuck in the past. In Iowa and South Carolina pollsters only asked Republican voters if they were evangelicals. The false assumption is that independents or Democrats are unlikely to care much about religion, tone deaf when it comes to matters of faith, blind to biblical calls for justice and compassion.

For many years, this story line made at least some sense. Democrats often dismissed traditional religious values and pro-life positions as incompatible with progressive politics. At times, the party mistakenly conceded debates over culture, the family and bioethics to conservatives who were more than willing to galvanize voters in a strategic effort to create what the late Jerry Falwell called a "moral majority." But the so-called "God gap"-the double digit advantage Republicans have held for a decade among Americans who attend religious services once a week or more - is shrinking.

In the last congressional elections, more than half of Catholic voters (55%) supported Democrats, a significant reversal from 2004 when the GOP won a narrow majority of the Catholic vote. Religious voters who recognize economic justice is a moral issue helped minimum wage initiatives succeed in all six states where they were on the ballot. Today, Catholic and evangelical leaders are working together to expand a values debate that for too long has been dominated by partisan wedge issues and strident voices from the far right.

Rev. Larry Synder, the president of Catholic Charities USA, and Ron Sider, the president of Evangelicals for Social Action, recently joined other prominent Christian leaders challenging President Bush to salvage his moral legacy in his last year in office by focusing on reducing poverty, ending torture and taking seriously the threats of global climate change. These are profound moral issues "values voters" care deeply about as we decide which candidate is most prepared to lead our country. When it comes to abortion, a majority of Americans recognize that building a consistent culture of life requires more than rhetoric and political pandering on the campaign trail. We need public policies that expand pre-natal care, better social services for mothers and families, and living wages for workers in order to help women choose life.

Progressives are rediscovering the truth that most transformative social movements in history would never have succeeded without the clarity of moral vision that believers brought to the struggles to end slavery, advance workers' rights or promote racial equality. Unfortunately, the press is failing to offer an accurate picture of religion in America. A study by the watchdog group Media Matters found that news coverage has overwhelmingly focused on far-right religious commentators who reinforce a "culture wars" narrative at the expense of mainstream religious voices.

This misrepresentation lacks nuance and leads to simplistic depictions. A 2006 Zogby International exit poll showed that the "moral issue" cited most by voters was the Iraq war. High percentages of voters cited greed and materialism or poverty and economic justice as "the most urgent moral crisis in American culture." The religious and political landscape is changing. It's time for the pollsters and media pundits to catch up with the story.

Alexia Kelley is the executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.

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