Politics and the Church
‘Value voting’ changes political landscape for churches
A UMNS Feature
By Tamie Ross
For millions of American voters, the 2004 presidential election wasn’t decided primarily on the state of the economy or the war on terror, but on a combination of issues that fell under the general heading of “moral values.”
Values were a driving force in getting many Christians to the polls – and helping produce a record voter turnout for a U.S. presidential election.
Churches, special-interest organizations and political parties appealed to people of faith on an unprecedented scale, motivating many dormant or first-time voters around issues such as abortion, stem-cell research and gay marriage. Beyond the issues, many voters quoted in news reports said they simply wanted to support a “godly” candidate.
The United Methodist Church had the denominational distinction of having three of four of the candidates for the nation’s highest offices among its ranks: Republican President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. John Edwards.
Like those candidates, United Methodists spanned the political spectrum. Regardless of their political parties, many of them based their votes on values informed by their faith. In the weeks since the election, however, analysts who were caught by surprise by the “values” factor have typecast the Christian voter as a conservative aligned with an outspokenly Christian president.
Where do most United Methodists stand? On both sides and in the middle, said the Rev. Scot Ocke, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Marysville, Ohio. “We are a very divided denomination theologically. Diverse values motivated diverse voting.”
Those positions don’t necessarily translate politically into right and left.
“I don’t think you can divide America into conservative and liberal any more,” said Bishop Lindsey Davis, who leads the church’s North Georgia Area. “I think people have wide ranges of perspectives on many different issues.”
Registering church members
The Rev. John Ed Mathison, senior minister at Frazer Memorial United Methodist Church in Montgomery, Ala., acknowledges that he’s known as a conservative voice in the church, but that doesn’t mean he’s vocally conservative about political issues. Quite the contrary, he said.
“I just want people, Christians, to be responsible citizens,” Mathison told United Methodist News Service. “I have a strong conviction that every church member should be registered and should vote.”
Frazer conducted a strong voter-registration drive this year, Mathison said. While he doesn’t know how many new voters the church recruited, he said he was proud of the work that his church and other faith-based and secular groups did this year.
Mathison said he was surprised during the campaign when the war on terror and economic policy consistently received more attention than other issues – issues such as stem-cell research, abortion and gay marriage, which he knew were important to many members of his church.
“I remember wondering how accurate these pollsters were,” he said, laughing. “Let’s just say I didn’t, and still don’t, place a lot of faith on them.”
Of those responding to exit questions after balloting on Nov. 2, a resounding number, 64 percent, said they ranked “moral values” ahead of all other issues when casting their ballots. In an August poll, 86 percent of the people who ranked values first also supported President Bush. Terrorism ranked second in that poll, commissioned by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Sexuality, social justice
In 11 states, those who went to the polls voted for a president, but they also made a statement on a different kind of policy. Where constitutional amendments defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman were on the ballot, they were ratified by a large margin.
Mathison said that millions of American voters echoed the delegates to the 2004 General Conference on the subject of marriage. In May, the delegates added a sentence to the denomination’s Social Principles, reading: “We support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.”
“I would assume that voters chose the candidate they felt best represented them on every issue,” Mathison said. “The United Methodist Church’s stance was very clear on a lot of issues at the last General Conference. That stance was reflected in this election.”
Some in the church wonder if sexuality issues superseded matters of social justice.
Bishop Ann Sherer of the Nebraska Annual Conference said talk of values and voters that emphasizes Christianity concerns her.
“I worry that now we’ve almost made a limiting view of Christian values,” Sherer said. While the debate about human sexuality is important, other critical values shouldn’t suffer as a result, she said. “All the issues that we find discussed in the New Testament, from nonviolence to justice and diversity and value for all persons, those are extremely important too.”
What are values?
The outcome of the election provided a new label: “Values voters.” Some say the moniker represents a social and political return to old-fashioned morals. Others wonder whose values are being represented.
Shocking to some may be hearing that morals and values are not the same, said the Rev. Steve Ross, pastor of McMinnville (Ore.) United Methodist Church. The difference is key to understanding why some voted this year as they did.
“Values are sort of basic assumptions about what’s right and wrong,” Ross said. “Morals are the specific, acted-out, visible evidences of those values.”
For instance, he said, a value may be “life is sacred and should be protected.” A moral in this scenario might be “abortion should be against the law and that those who have them should be prosecuted.”
“It wasn’t really clear until this election how this word (values) has been captured by such a narrow range of issues,” Ross said. “This election was a wakeup call, and many people underestimated the breadth of this movement.
“A lot of people are insulted to hear publicly that they don’t have values, even as we talk about economic justice, personal freedoms and environmental care,” he said. He predicted a broader debate about values and morals in future elections. “We’ll still have the same issues as this year, but there will be others.”
Whether or not the values movement will be as strong in 2008 or how it will affect local and state elections is difficult to say. On Nov. 25, abortion opponents claimed legislative victory when a federal spending bill of $388 billion was passed with a clause that allowed hospitals to refuse to perform abortions.
In light of this bill and those to come, Davis hopes the talk – and resulting action – will shift from “values” to “virtues.”
“A lot of people have certain values, certain attitudes about issues,” Davis said, “but it doesn’t really impact very much how they live their lives from day to day. Virtues, from my perspective, are lived out on a daily basis.
“There are a lot of people who value honesty, but aren’t very honest themselves. For those who have honesty as a deep virtue in their lives, it shows as they live it.”
‘Lens of faith’
Diversity is a national theme, but drawing out shared interests is key for political campaigns to succeed in electing a candidate.
James Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and an expert on church-state issues, said Democrats and Republicans are moving further apart, not closer together, on issues at the core of the values debate. President Bush’s campaign was most successful at drawing attention to this area.
“There were stark differences between Bush and Kerry on abortion, homosexuality, stem cell research and the whole role of faith in personal and public life,” Wilson said. “The gay marriage issue is one that can work powerfully for Republicans and could be deadly for Democrats if they get on the wrong side of it.”
Republican strategist Karl Rove was the key figure credited with courting faith-driven voters this year. Undoubtedly, experts say, both Democrats and Republicans will make Christian voters a priority in 2008 and in other races before then.
The Rev. Deanna Stickley-Miner, director of connectional mission and justice for the denomination’s West Ohio Annual (regional) Conference, warned against thinking that partisanship has a place in the church’s collective pew. Even as values converge and diverge, she said, faith remains a constant force that binds believers.
“(United) Methodists have always been values voters,” she said. “But the Methodists’ understanding of morality is much broader than that presented in the last campaign.”
Stickley-Miner’s work takes her to low-income neighborhoods, where she helps feed hungry children. Her top priority is taking care of the hungry, the poor and those who cannot fight for themselves.
“We need to be able to expand our perception of morality to include social justice,” she said. “In the United Methodist Church, we have such a broad, historical understanding of what it means to be moral people in the world. It does include sexual morality, but it also includes the way we use our money, our influence, the way we care for the environment.”
Stickley-Miner said seeing life through a “lens of faith” enables her to disengage from a political viewpoint and instead focus on the people involved.
“We’re getting ready to celebrate Christmas, the birth of the Prince of Peace,” she said. “What better time to address the growing interest, the desire to say, ‘Let’s talk about issues from a place of faith, not politics.’ ”
*Ross is a freelance journalist based in Dallas.
This feature was originally posted in December 2004.