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So Who Were Those Values Voters?
 
December 6th, 2004 - USA Today - In the classic western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, there is a humorous moment when Butch and his sidekick in crime are fleeing a posse chasing them across the desert. Unable to shake his pursuers, Butch (played by Paul Newman) finally looks back at the posse galloping on horseback and asks incredulously, "Who are those guys?" Since Nov. 2, when President Bush won a solid victory in part because of the turnout of conservative people of faith, pundits have been scratching their heads wondering, "Who are these people, and where did they come from?"

Their existence should not have come as a shock. Faith sparking citizens to action is one of the most persistent themes in U.S. history.

The anti-slavery movement arose from the Second Great Awakening and birthed the Republican Party. The Progressive movement treated faith as the crucible of politics. When the Bull Moose Party nominated Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 on a platform of tariff reform and stricter regulation of business, delegates unfurled banners with Bible verses and sang, Onward Christian Soldiers. (Imagine the media accounts if that had happened at the Republican convention in New York City!) The reliance of the civil rights movement on the black church is legendary.

This same pattern prevailed in 2004. According to Election Day exit polls, white religious conservatives, who comprised 17% of the electorate in 1996 but fell to only 14% in 2000, surged to 23% of all voters and 78% of them voted for Bush. Catholic voters supported Bush over the first Catholic nominee in 44 years by a margin of 52% to 47%, a net gain of 8 points for the president over 2000.

Where Republican values have taken root

In the South, with its large number of values voters, Bush carried the region and its 173 electoral votes for the second time, and his average take in those states was 58%. No Democrat has ever been elected president without carrying at least four Southern states, and Sen. John Kerry was no exception. The GOP won all five open Senate seats in Dixie. A region once known for Democratic dominance has been transformed by Republican ascendancy. In 1980, there were 20 Democrats and six Republican U.S. senators from the South; after 2004, the South will send 22 Republicans and only four Democrats to the Senate. Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia is correct when he says the Democrats are a "national party no more," primarily because of their failure to compete in the South and disconnection from the values of average Americans.

Values voters, in the South or the heartland, are concerned about preserving marriage, protecting children from violent or sexually explicit entertainment, teaching the same values in school that are taught at home and reducing the number of teen pregnancies and abortions. More than any single issue, they seek to redress a coarsening of the culture and a loss of civility. They want a family-friendly society that is compassionate to the needy and holds people accountable for their conduct.

But while many of them view citizenship as an expression of their faith, it is by no means the most important thing in their lives. For most, politics takes a back seat to raising their children, helping the poor, serving in the church and assisting neighbors in need.

How faith and God can steer this world

I first encountered what might be called the soul of our polity while growing up in the mountains of north Georgia. A terrible flood swept through the campus of a local Bible college, killing 39 people. The outpouring of grief was matched by the compassion of our community. Families took in survivors, collected food and clothing and contributed money to the college, while churches threw open their doors for prayer vigils. I saw a devastated community overcome adversity through faith in God and love for one another.

If one wants to understand the wellspring of these values, the most important documentary of the year isn't by Michael Moore. It is a heartwarming film called Paper Clips, which recounts the remarkable story of high school students in a small town in rural Tennessee who decided to collect paper clips for each victim of the Holocaust. What began as a class project ended with more than 12 million paper clips stored in a railroad car that once carried human cargo to Nazi concentration camps. These young people understood that exercising their faith meant defending the right of others to practice their own faith.

Yet the Democrats have driven these religious folk from their party with a vengeance. They have been called extremists or worse, ridiculed and stereotyped. Republicans have embraced them, recognizing that the values they cherish are not a threat to democracy, but essential to it.

Voters of faith see George W. Bush as personifying these values, a man of decency and character who is leading the nation with a rare mixture of courage and moral clarity. The more the left and the media attacked him, the more voters of faith organized and registered their friends to vote. The results on Election Day were a tribute to their tenacity and dedication.

It is tempting to exaggerate the role that values played in 2004 and will in the future. In truth, the Bush victory was a rising tide that lifted all boats, carrying 40% of the Hispanic vote, 57% of the veteran vote and nearly splitting the women's vote. But to see into the future, one need only understand the past. The American people have always viewed politics through a prism of faith, and they naturally seek leaders who share their values and stands on the issues.

Ralph Reed was chairman of Bush-Cheney '04 in the Southeast region.

 

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