Public opinion surveys after U.S. presidential election show "moral values" were a defining issue for many of President George W. Bush's supporters. Mr. Bush earned another term in the White House by winning all of the states in the south and southwest and most of the states in the Midwest. His Democratic rival, Senator John Kerry, won the support of voters in states along the northeastern seaboard, the Pacific Rim and six of the eight states bordering the Great Lakes. This divide has led to a national debate on moral values.
Initial polling data showed that more than one-fifth of voters who supported President Bush's bid for re-election listed "moral values" as a top priority. Some analysts now say the role of values in the election was exaggerated, pointing out that 78 percent of voters did not view the issue as a key concern. Other analysts criticize the polling questions, saying that "moral values" is an imprecise term and should not have been included along with specifics such as taxes, the economy and the war in Iraq. Subsequent surveys show that Christian evangelicals did not actually vote for Mr. Bush in much larger numbers than in the 2000 election.
Still, it is clear that America's voters often hold very divergent views on issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Now a national debate has emerged in the United States about why people in various parts of the country responded differently to the "moral values" question.
Is there a reason why voters on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts seem more liberal than those in the so-called heartland of America? Are the more liberal voters who supported Senator Kerry somehow lacking in moral values?
Not so, says Christina Garidis, a university researcher and graduate student in psychology.
"I try to uphold secular moral values, closer to utilitarian ethics, what's better for the majority," she said. "It is not necessarily the best choice but we have to respect all cultures and ethnicities and religions."
Aspiring New York stage Actor Robert Harrington also says he tries to live a moral life. But he wonders if his definition differs from voters in more conservative parts of the nation.
"Most creative people tend to be liberals so their idea of morality may not be as stringent as more conservative Christian thought," he said. "It may be more loosely based. I think there are less rules of what is wrong or right in terms of morality."
Mary Ellen Stanton epitomizes the voter both political parties targeted in the election. She lives in Pennsylvania, one of the three most hotly contested states in this year's presidential race. A former schoolteacher married to a former school principal who now owns his own small business, she is the mother of three children and just became a grandmother for the first time. She was educated in Roman Catholic schools from elementary school through college and actively participates in her church. Ms. Stanton also has very strong feelings about what moral values should mean to a person.
"To me, it means the guidelines by which they have formed a belief system which can be a combination of their religious upbringing, their exposures as far as their religious education or within the family unit," she said. "I think it also brings into play the laws of our land and the community. I think it also brings in, to take it a little bit further, the way you treat people with respect and decency. It also recognizes the diversity that exists within our country."
Forrest Church has been the pastor of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City for 26 years. He is the author of numerous books on faith and American history, including one on the separation of church and state, and is currently working on a book about religion and the U.S. presidency. Reverend Church is the son of the late Senator Frank Church of Idaho, a liberal icon. He says moral values should be the highest priority of every human being. But he believes some religious groups are narrowing the definition of values to specifics such as abortion and gay marriage.
"The American value system which goes back to our Declaration of Independence, that points to a very broad set of moral values of which the linchpin is equality," he said. "These other moral values tend to divide rather than unite and I think we need to return to a more expansive and more generous and embracing set of moral principles that unite all God's children as part of one family."
Reverend Church says about 30 percent of New York's population regularly attends religious services, compared to 40 percent nationwide. But he says that for his congregation, living a moral life means more than attending religious services.
"They believe in deeds not creeds," he said. "So they spend an awful lot of their religious time working in East Harlem, working in our soup kitchen, working in an AIDS program. That is very much I think in league with what the fundamentalists or evangelicals in the heartland would approve of. I do not see a huge gap in terms of our deeds."
Forrest Church does, however, see a real gap in communications that often keep conservatives and liberals from recognizing shared goals.
"The film industry, the television industry is basically amoral," said Pastor Church. "It takes advantage of the freedoms that we are not going to give away. But one of the things that we need to do in this communication gap is to translate that many of us here are hardly delighted by the rat-a-tat four letter words and the promiscuous nudity. That is not a part of the liberal value tradition."
According to Kent Worcester, a political science professor at Marymount Manhattan College, a school loosely affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, this communication gap has contributed to a misleading snapshot of liberal voters.
"Ironically, you have a state like Massachusetts which has some of the lowest divorce rates in the country symbolized as this libertine fringe state," he said. "When in fact the divorce rate and alcoholism and so on are apparently stronger in the red states [states that voted for President Bush]. Nevertheless, the Democratic Part is now caricatured as a party of single people and gay people and sexual explorers."
Geography probably does play a role in the values debate. Historically, large cities grew near ports for economic reasons and provided jobs for new immigrant groups in industry. Labor unions in many of these industries have traditionally supported the Democratic Party. Unions have become less important, but cities attract large numbers of professional and creative workers, many of them highly educated, who increasingly lean toward the Democrats, especially on social issues. The concentration of voters in cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Milwaukee and Seattle tends to outweigh the more conservative rural vote in other areas of their state.