I am a values voter.
Given my progressive political and religious beliefs, some might find this a dubious claim — especially members of the Christian right, who with their rhetoric about "values voters" suggest that only those who share their positions on abortion and same-sex couples possess something deserving of the term "values."
Social conservatives' skewed deployment of the "v-word" floods the public square these days. (Though it didn't help Republicans this time as it did in 2004.) President Bush, on the campaign trail, called on voters to support candidates who defend "traditional values."
Consider two events organized this past year by leading religious right figures — the "Values Voters Summit," held earlier this fall with a lineup of speakers that included the flame-throwing Ann Coulter, and the high-profile "War on Christians and the Values Voter" conference in March. Consider the ValuesVoters.com website operated by the conservative American Family Association, and the declaration by leading social conservative Gary Bauer that 2004 was the "year of the values voter."
Apparently, those of us who hold different positions on the hot-button issues as framed by social conservatives — those of us who turn our attention and hearts to other imperatives such as peace-making, poverty relief, environmental preservation and tolerance — have no values. According to the rhetoric of social conservatives, progressives are the "anything goes" lot. Secularists, liberal Christians and followers of other faiths — we're the ones tearing America down with our moral weakness and hostility to the conservative Christian worldview.
No one has a corner on values
Let's move past this hubris and damn-the-opponents rhetoric. We all have values. Let the majority of us who are not members of the "values voters" club continue to take back the v-word and proclaim the values that we've always acted — and voted — upon.
Does opposition to the war in Iraq represent an absence of values? Anything but. What is it if not deeply rooted principles and ideals — values, in other words — that moves so many Americans to oppose the war? We insist on truth-telling by our political leaders. We respect human life, which is why it saddens and outrages us to contemplate the deaths of American soldiers and of many tens of thousands of Iraqis. We hope and pray for a peaceful world in which war, if it must come, is a last resort, not a favored option.
Dwight Moody, a Baptist minister and writer on religion and culture, had this to say about values in a recent e-mail exchange with me: "Progressives, moderates and liberals are also undergirded by deeply held moral convictions, much of it driven by a religious and Christian view of the world: the value of creation, the dignity of the human person, the need for equity and justice, the cause of the poor and the dispossessed. These are values rarely articulated by the religious right, but they run deep and wide in the Bible."
Granted, liberals have been too shy about framing their political positions in moral terms, and too reluctant to use words such as "evil" to describe the acts of terrorists. The sexual adventures of high-profile Democrats such as Bill Clinton and the revolving-door domestic arrangements of Hollywood stars have lent fodder to conservatives who would blast their opponents as godless hedonists. Liberals have paid at the ballot box.
Thankfully, change is coming. Everywhere I look, I see progressives beginning to invoke values in ways that might startle religious conservatives, and in ways that probably helped Democrats win last week.
In Oregon, a recently formed ecumenical group proclaims the v-word in its name: the Oregon Center for Christian Values. These are "Christian values" rooted in human rights, economic justice for the disadvantaged and care for the environment. "Our commitment to Christ," the organization declares in its literature, "compels us to reach beyond the traditional 'moral values' issues often discussed in American politics today. Our goal is to call Christians to reclaim the radical, transformational vision for culture and society that reverberates in the teachings of Jesus."
A group called Red Letter Christians — a reference to the use of red letters in some Bibles to mark the words of Jesus — urged Bible-believers in the run-up to the elections to "vote their values" by treating the environment, poverty and the Iraq war as religious issues. William Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, invokes values in describing the approach to sexuality education adopted by the theologically liberal Unitarians — an approach that directly acknowledges that people will have sex outside of the opposite-sex, husband-and-wife contexts. "Sexuality education is about much more than just biology and rules," Sinkford wrote recently. "It is about values, including self-worth, sexual health, responsibility, justice and inclusivity and communication."
In the analyses and proclamations following last Tuesday's vote, "values" have been popping up in upside-down new ways. The prime example may be the Democrat who won the seat of disgraced Republican congressman Mark Foley and promptly pledged to take immediate action to make sure "our values and morals are represented" in Washington.
A less strident view
As progressives wield language that once belonged solely to conservatives, may we do so fairly, in a way that acknowledges that the other side of the debate also has values. In so doing, we'll model other core values of ours: inclusiveness and respect for differing viewpoints.
The truth about values is that we all have them, but that in our diverse, religiously pluralistic society, we don't share the same ones. What some of us consider a core value can offend others. Tolerance, for example, is a central value to progressives; to some conservatives, it's the root of our problems. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, has unfairly blamed homosexuality, and our liberal society's tolerance thereof, for Foley's improprieties with pages and for the slow speed with which Capitol Hill Republicans responded to reports of Foley's misdeeds.
Perkins was hitting hard on the "values voters" theme in the weeks leading up to the elections. Responding to reports of evangelical disenchantment with Bush and the Republicans and forecasts of lower turnout by the bloc credited with winning the president's re-election in 2004, Perkins urged social conservatives to rediscover their zest for voting. "Values voters across the nation," Perkins wrote in September in his daily e-mail report, "are beginning to see ... what will happen if they sit idly by and allow the rudderless liberals to set a course for our nation." Closer to the elections, Perkins admitted that religious conservative enthusiasm was not what it was in 2004. "If you are tempted to sit this election out, I encourage you not to," he wrote. "Vote your values."
Vote your values. That's certainly what I did. That's what we all did.
Tom Krattenmaker, who lives in Portland, Ore., specializes in religion in public life and is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors. He is working on a book about the Christianization of professional sports.
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