According to many analysts of opinion polls taken during the November 2 presidential election, "moral values," encompassing such matters as abortion and gay marriage, was the top issue that led to the re-election of President Bush. The analysts conclude that the issue mobilized Christian conservatives, and, in key states, their votes made a difference for President Bush. Conservative religious people in the U.S. heartland came out in record numbers to vote against what they see as alarming social trends.
Every Sunday, tens of thousands of Christians in the Houston area go to the churches of their choice.
There, they sing, pray and meditate on basic teachings from scripture that apply to everyday life. Many of them say their religious convictions led them to vote for President Bush.
"I voted for someone who has good Christian values and who is not going to allow the sanctity of marriage to be taken away," one woman says.
Some liberal Democrats have expressed dismay over the political power of religion in recent elections and some regard the mixing of religion and politics as a threat to the separation of church and state. But University of Houston Sociologist Lynn Mitchell, who has spent decades studying religious groups in the United States, says religion has always played an important role in U.S. political movements. He notes that Christian moral values influenced the people who fought to abolish slavery, to end racial discrimination and to stop the war in Vietnam.
"Even if they were not religious, even if they did not believe in God, the [Vietnam] war was a moral issue," he says. "That is why this talk about how we should not get moral issues involved in politics is just nonsense because all of the great issues are related to moral issues."
What is different now, according to Professor Mitchell, is that many traditional Christians feel their moral standards are under threat. He says court decisions that eliminated prayer in public schools, legalized abortion and opened the way to marriage between homosexuals, have pushed many separate religious groups to join forces.
"What has happened in the last decade or two is that there is now a coalition, a religious coalition, not a political coalition - but it turns into a political coalition," he notes. "There is a religious coalition between fundamentalists and Pentecostals and conservative Roman Catholics."
Pentecostals and fundamentalists are both called "evangelicals." But there are many variations within this grouping according to Professor Mitchell.
"If you go up and ask a group of people who just voted if they are 'born again,' a percentage of evangelicals will say, 'yes,' and a percentage will say, 'no' because they come from a different tradition in which that language is not used," he adds.
Of those voters who were identified as evangelicals in the election, 79 percent voted for President Bush. At the same time, 52 percent of Catholics voted for Mr. Bush, even though his Democratic opponent, Senator John Kerry, is a Catholic.
One of the issues that drove the religious vote was opposition to abortion, but the main issue for conservative Christians in this year's election was gay marriage.
This issue was put in the spotlight by a court decision in Massachusetts that legalized such unions and a movement, endorsed by the Democratic mayor of San Francisco in February, that led to dozens of male homosexuals and lesbians being married in that California city. Those marriages were later declared void because they violated California law, but the incident served to galvanize conservative Christians who regard homosexuality as sinful. President Bush, at the urging of some Christian leaders, proposed a constitutional amendment to affirm that marriage can only exist between a man and a woman and, in the election, voters in 11 states passed laws with similar wording.
Michael Newman is a Christian activist in Houston who abandoned his own gay lifestyle several years ago and now counsels others to do the same.
Mr. Newman agrees with many fellow Christians who complain that popular films and television programs are promoting homosexuality by depicting gay characters positively and ridiculing anyone who objects to their lifestyle.
"The conservative perspective, I think, is not being represented as often and as accurately, or as frequently as the liberal perspective," he says.
But many liberals are troubled by the growing power of conservative Christian radio and television programs in which secular, liberal views are attacked. Professor Mitchell, the religion expert, says the bias in these broadcasts was evident just before the election.
"They had preachers and religious leaders basically warning their listeners and viewers, who number in the millions, that they would probably go to hell if they did not go out and vote for Bush, even though they never mentioned Bush's name," he says.
Professor Mitchell says religion is likely to remain a strong part of U.S. politics because it is a strong part of the nation's culture. He says the moral issues at the center of this year's political contest will likely remain for some time to come, even as new moral problems emerge and become the focus of debate.