It has been a little more than a week since Americans reelected George W. Bush to a second term in the White House. A significant share of credit for his victory goes to voters who cited moral values as a major issue in choosing Mr. Bush over Democrat John Kerry for president.
For months, political experts predicted that this year's election would be decided on three main issues, Iraq, the war on terrorism and the domestic economy.
But voter surveys found that people cited moral values as their number one concern more than any other issue. Twenty two percent of those asked chose moral issues, compared to 20 percent for the economy and 19 percent for terrorism.
Of those who mentioned moral values as their top issue, 80 percent voted for President George Bush. For voters who said the economy was their main concern, 80 percent supported Senator John Kerry.
Republicans say a focus on moral values was part of their victory plan all along. "I said from the outset that this was an election that was going to be decided on national security issues, the economy and who shares our values and to a certain extent in an equal mix," said Republican Party Chairman Ed Gillespie. "Well, it was. Twenty-two percent of voters said that values were a concern when they cast their ballot."
Political experts have noted a trend in recent elections that tends to divide Americans between religious and non-religious voters.
"There is a very big divide between religious people, and people who are more secular, who don't go to church with any great regularity," said Professor Stephen Wayne, who has written about the history of U.S. elections at Georgetown University in Washington. "The more likely a person goes to church, the more likely they'll vote for Bush. The less likely they go to church, the more likely they'll support John Kerry."
President Bush says he is grateful for the support of religious voters. But he downplays the notion that the election results indicate a growing religious divide in the country. "My answer to people is, I will be your president regardless of your faith...," he has said.
Voters concerned about moral values cited issues like abortion and gay marriage. Voters in 11 states approved bans on gay marriage on Election Day and many experts believe the national debate on that issue helped to boost conservative turnout in favor of the president.
The Reverend Joe Watkins advised the Bush campaign this year how to win over African-American voters concerned about moral issues. He says both parties need to recognize the importance of moral issues among voters.
"I think a lot of people just want an America that embraces who they are. And that means not only people on the left, but people on the right and people in the center as well," said Reverend Watkins. "There are a lot of people of faith who just want their faith to matter."
During the campaign, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was a frequent visitor to African-American churches, where he quoted from the Bible and tried to assure religious voters that he shared their moral concerns. "It is not enough, my brother, to say you have faith when there are no deeds," said Senator Kerry. "Faith without works is dead."
But Democratic political strategists like Paul Begala acknowledge that their party underestimated the impact of religion and moral values on the election. "Democrats... my party has got to do a better job of respecting people's cultural values and connecting with them," he said.
Many Democrats say they fear the president's re-election victory may lead to more vigorous Republican attempts to impose moral and religious values on government policy. But they also acknowledge they must find a way to connect with at least some of the voters who focus on moral values in order to compete successfully against the Republicans in the next national election.