The val­ues voter is us

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Suzanne Fields

The con­ven­tional wis­dom says the re­li­gious right has a mo­nop­oly on the “val­ues vot­ers,” but that’s too sim­ple. We’re all val­ues vot­ers. We just de­fine our val­ues dif­fer­ently. In a democ­racy pol­i­tics is the art of cap­tur­ing the pas­sions of the peo­ple, and in the heat of the race in­tel­li­gent ar­gu­ment usu­ally drives most of us to­ward the mid­dle.

“The fact that we can­not es­cape moral con­flicts in pol­i­tics does not doom Amer­i­can democ­racy to end­less po­lit­i­cal war­fare,” writes Jon A. Shields, a pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal science at the Univer­sity of Colorado in Colorado Springs, in the Wil­son Quar­terly, show­ing how ide­o­logues ap­peal to the emo­tions of spe­cific con­stituen­cies, but they have to per­suade oth­ers with rea­son. “Even the most re­li­giously in­spired so­cial move­ments learn to mod­er­ate their ap­peals in or­der to win over mid­dle-of-the road cit­i­zens.” A slight shift of opin­ion trans­forms the red states and the blue states into var­i­ous shades of pur­ple. Frances Wil­lard, the zeal­ous pres­i­dent of the Women’s Chris­tian Tem­per­ance Union at the end of the 19th cen­tury, un­der­stood the im­por­tance of reach­ing out to the op­po­si­tion.

“Be of teach­able spirit,” she told her fol­low­ers,” and [be] tol­er­ant of those opin­ions which dif­fer from ours while we strive to show the rea­son­able­ness of ours.” An or­ga­ni­za­tion called Stand to Rea­son trains re­li­gious ac­tivists to­day to avoid re­li­gious lan­guage and en­cour­age lively de­bate on the moral is­sues of cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance.

Re­li­gious ar­gu­ments arm the ded­i­cated ide­o­logue, but a broader ar­gu­ment is nec­es­sary to get the less spir­i­tu­ally minded to lis­ten. In the early 20th cen­tury there was strong sup­port for ster­il­iza­tion of the psy­cho­log­i­cally im­paired, based on the “science” of eu­gen­ics. The Ro­man Catholic Church nat­u­rally cru­saded against eu­gen­ics, but not by em­pha­siz­ing re­li­gious doc­trine. The cru­saders brought le­gal, sci­en­tific and moral ar­gu­ments to bear show­ing how eu­gen­ics con­tra­dict our most cher­ished no­tions of so­cial jus­tice.

Ap­peals to com­pro­mise or mod­er­a­tion drive the fa­nat­ics in any so­cial move­ment to the side­lines of cul­tural strug­gle. Fires de­stroy ev­ery­thing when zealots get too fired up. It’s not hard to find nu­mer­ous ex­am­ples. The im­pa­tient and ir­ra­tional flee from ap­peals to rea­son to marginal­iza­tion and then some­times to vi­o­lence. The no-com­pro­mis­ers in the civil rights move­ment be­gat the Black Pan­thers, the en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists be­gat eco-ter­ror­ists, the New Left be­gat the Weather­men, pro-lif­ers be­gat abor­tion-clinic bombers.

Those who ad­vo­cate mod­er­a­tion, how­ever un­sat­is­fy­ing mod­er­a­tion can be, are more likely to suc­ceed in get­ting their views across. Rudy Gi­u­liani seemed to be act­ing on that no­tion when he spoke two weeks ago to re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives at the Val­ues Vot­ers Sum­mit in Wash­ing­ton. “Chris­tian­ity is all about in­clu­sive­ness,” he said, and he quoted Ron­ald Rea­gan, the hero hov­er­ing over the sum­mit: “My 80 per­cent friend is not my 100 per­cent en­emy.” The for­mer mayor of New York didn’t win many votes in the sum­mit straw poll, but he was talk­ing to the larger au­di­ence that will de­ter­mine the win­ner next year.

Iron­i­cally, the pol­i­tics of the New Left of the 1960s cru­saded for “val­ues vot­ers” be­fore the con­ser­va­tives did. But they failed to build a win­ning con­sen­sus and Richard Nixon won the elec­tion. The New Left lost its ap­petite for val­ues vot­ers when it turned out that they had the wrong val­ues. The right suc­ceeded in or­ga­niz­ing the grass­roots, cre­at­ing a broad con­ser­va­tive move­ment of civic en­gage­ment that lib­er­als sat­i­rized with the bumper sticker, “Nuke the gay whales for Je­sus.” “One of the great po­lit­i­cal ironies of the past few decades is that the Chris­tian Right has been much more suc­cess­ful than its po­lit­i­cal ri­vals at ful­fill­ing lib­eral thinkers’ hopes for Amer­i­can democ­racy,” writes Prof. Shields.

But the fu­ture of the re­li­gious righ­teous is less clear. The pres­i­den­tial con­tenders ask­ing for their votes are more mixed in their ap­peal than Ge­orge W. Bush was seven years ago. It’s harder now to ex­cite pas­sion with rea­son when the ar­gu­ments aren’t 100 per­cent ide­o­log­i­cally pure. But Amer­i­cans re­main a prac­ti­cal peo­ple and no­body likes a los­ing strat­egy for long, no mat­ter how dear the sin­gle is­sue.

The sep­a­ra­tion of church and state re­mains the great tri­umph of our democ­racy, en­abling lively and of­ten con­tentious ar­gu­ment that leads to work­able, if not al­ways wholly sat­is­fy­ing, com­pro­mise. The ten­sions be­tween en­light­en­ment and evan­ge­lism have been with us through­out our his­tory, a strug­gle be­tween rea­son and emo­tion. It’s a ten­sion which at its best pro­vokes in­formed de­bate on moral and in­tel­lec­tual is­sues. To para­phrase Pogo, the philoso­pher of the comics pages, “We have seen the val­ues voter and he is us.”

Suzanne Fields, a colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Times, is na­tion­ally syn­di­cated.

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