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Moral Values: a Hot Political Issue in America

There's been a lot of talk in the American media lately about "moral values." In exit polls during the presidential election, many voters said moral values were their Number One concern--and 80 percent of those who said they had voted for moral values also said they had voted for George W. Bush. Liberals insist they, too, are concerned about moral values they just don't talk about their concerns in those terms.

One fifth of Americans who went to the polls on November 2nd said they were motivated by a concern for moral values. By that, they seem to have meant opposition to abortion, gay marriage, and stem-cell research, among other issues. Many of these voters were so-called "evangelical Christians," and the influence they're exerting over America's social agenda isn't all that unusual. According to Randall Balmer, who teaches American religious history at Columbia University, evangelical concern for "moral values" has been a defining feature of American politics for a while now.

"In the 19th Century, evangelicals in particular were responsible for setting the social and political agenda for much of the century. And the agenda that they carved out was very much directed toward those who are on the margins of society" says Mr. Balmer. "Slaves and the whole abolitionist movement. The temperance crusade (i.e. anti-alcohol crusade), which in the 19th century was a progressive cause. The whole issue of women's education and suffrage were all evangelical political causes."

Back then, those moral values were considered to be very liberalor "progressive," to use the terminology of the day. But are present-day liberal issues, like universal health care or criticism of the war Iraq, considered to be "moral values?" Not really, says Randall Balmerat least not in the collective, twenty-first century sense of the term. Professor Balmer says since the 1970s, conservatives have changed the evangelical understanding of "moral values." And because evangelicals have traditionally dominated the conversation about morality in America, our collective understanding of what a "moral value" is has also changed.

"I don't see any of the same interest in the marginalized in society in the agenda of the Religious Right that I find in what I consider to be the noble legacy of 19th-century evangelical political activism."

So what exactly happened? How did conservatives gain control of the conversation about moral values? Randall Balmer says it has to do with two things, really: the Cold War fight against godless Communism and the racial tumult of the 1960s.

"The two forces together skewed evangelical political activism in the direction of conservatism, as opposed to what it was in the 19th century, very liberal and progressive causes."

But it isn't just that evangelical Christians have abandoned their progressive traditions and become more conservative. They've also maintained their control over the "moral value" conversation. And according to Steven Waldman, co-founder of the website, conservative evangelicals couldn't have maintained their control of the conversation if liberals hadn't given it up.

"If you ask people whether they're voting on moral values, the ones that are more likely to think of it in those terms are conservative. And that doesn't mean that liberals aren't thinking in terms of moral values. They're just not used to articulating it that way. "

Steven Waldman says over the last thirty years or so, liberals have stopped using the language of morality.

"This is a topic that liberals are already beginning to chew over and will for the next four years. I think there's a certain discomfort that liberals have with the language of morality, because it feels intolerant to them. And one of the most pre-eminent values among liberals is tolerance."

But, Steven Waldman adds, liberals are going to have to find a way of speaking about their issues in moral terms if they want to win the next presidential election. And judging from the editorials published in a number of prominent newspapers these past few weeks, decrying the notion that Mr. Bush's supporters are the only "moral values voters" in America, there seems to be an understanding among at least some liberals of the challenge they have ahead of them.