Thursday, May 18, 2006

Who is the 'Values Voter'?

Conservative columnist George Will writes:
It is odd that some conservatives are eager to promote the semantic vanity of the phrase "values voters." And it is odder still that the media are cooperating with those conservatives.

Conservatives should be wary of the idea that when they talk about, say, tax cuts and limited government -- about things other than abortion, gay marriage, religion in the public square and similar issues -- they are engaging in values-free discourse. And by ratifying the social conservatives' monopoly of the label "values voters," the media are furthering the fiction that these voters are somehow more morally awake than others.

Today's liberal agenda includes preservation, even expansion, of the welfare state in its current configuration in order to strengthen an egalitarian ethic of common provision. Liberals favor taxes and other measures to produce a more equal distribution of income. They may value equality indiscriminately, but they vote their values.

Among the various flavors of conservatism, there is libertarianism that is wary of government attempts to nurture morality and there is social conservatism that says unless government nurtures morality, liberty will perish. Both kinds of conservatives use their votes to advance what they value.

Only one Republican senator -- let us now praise New Hampshire's John Sununu -- voted for the measure to take the money for Alaska's "bridge to nowhere" and spend it for Hurricane Katrina relief, and also voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment (which would clutter the Constitution with the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman). The former vote affirmed the value of common sense; the latter, by opposing federal usurpation of the traditional state responsibility for marriage law, affirmed the value of cultural federalism. Is Sununu a values voter?

McCain, who also opposes the marriage amendment (but supports an Arizona initiative to define marriage there as between a man and a woman), says he would have voted for the bridge-for-Katrina money swap, had he not been away from the Senate that day. Perhaps he was out wooing values voters. Is he one?
Will concludes by saying that if, after this year's midterm elections, Hillary Clinton and John McCain remain their parties' frontrunners for the 2008 presidential election, "...both...will remain busy courting only values voters, because there is no other kind."

Will notwithstanding, I'm sure that there are some voters who aren't values voters, unless you count things like bald self-interest or political cronyism as values.

But Will nonetheless has an important point. The very phrase "values voter" has about it the air of condescension that conveys such values as egotism and self-righteousness. The fact is that people operate from different values.

One set of values voters may say, "We're pro-life and therefore, opposed to abortion." But another will say, "We're pro-life, too. That's why we oppose capital punishment."

One preacher may say that moral Christians are defined by their willingness to oppose the war in Iraq and increase the minimum wage to a specific dollar amount, while his colleague down the street insists that moral Christianity is seen in those who fight slot machines at the local race track and support President Bush's policies.

We may disagree with the values on which others base their votes. But we can't say that they're devoid of values.

If you're trying to win someone to your argument, you're unlikely to do it by implicitly demeaning them, casting them out of your in-group, the one that really cares about moral values.

The problem (well, one problem) with people who dress their particular political preferences in the hues of moral superiority is that they have an essentially pessmistic view of life. They see the camps of Us v. Them as being composed of lifetime members who will never "defect" to the other side. So, instead of trying to persuade others, appealing to their intelligence and their good will, the essence of good democratic discourse, they pump up the exclusionary talk and portrayals of their opponents as irredeemably evil.

The leaders of the various values voter camps, many of whom are Christians, could learn a lot from Saint Paul of New Testament fame. When Paul, an evangelist who believed (as I believe) that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation or relationship with God, arrived in Athens, he found himself in an almost dizzyingly pluralistic environment. There were statues to all sorts of gods filling the city. Paul could have entered the public square full of venom and condemnation, calling all of the good, decent monotheists of the city to rally to him.

That may have been momentarily gratifying to Paul. Who doesn't want to feel that they "get it" when the rest of the human race is ignorant or inferior? And the book of Acts says that he was "deeply distressed" at the sight of all these idols.

But Paul, himself a recovering self-righteous religionist, didn't cave into that impulse. Instead, when afforded the chance to address the people of Athens, he began by complimenting them. "I see how extremely religious you are in every way." He went on to mention seeing a statue "to an unknown god." I know this God, Paul tells them and proceeds to talk about the God revealed to Israel and ultimately, in Jesus Christ.

Paul believed in the possibility of persuading more people to agree with him.

But in the politics of exclusion practiced by the moral snobs of both parties today, there is little interest in expanding their base and enhancing their parties' capacity to truly govern.

They're perfectly willing to throw red (and blue) meat at the people who already agree with them, believing that by bringing out their own voters, they'll be able to get enough to the polls to squeak by yet another election.

Frankly, both as a Christian and a politically-interested American, I'm disgusted by the whole "values voter" business. There are times, of course, when preachers and churches should speak out in political matters. But this should happen only when the witness of Scripture is so clear that no theologian or preacher or layperson could legitimately object that what's being said isn't from God.

Rather than trying to impose their wills on governmental policy in this country, Christians who speak of themselves as "values voters" ought to be focused on transforming the values from which people make their political decisions by helping them to know Jesus Christ. (They might find their own values being transformed in the process.) Then, they should trust the Holy Spirit to guide people to do God's will, not to bend to theirs!

And we Christians, who believe that we're imperfect sinners saved by the grace of God given in Christ, ought to be humble enough to recognize that even we don't know where God wants the minimum wage to be set.


Deborah White said...

Thank you, Mark.

I will link to this from my site.

Mark Daniels said...

Thanks very much for linking to the post.


Deborah White said...


Be sure to visit my Heart blog sometime soon. I just put up an interesting post from another site about church, music and Simon Cowell. Intriguing insight.

I appreciate you analyzing George Will's column. It's an important thought for all of us. I may disagree with George Will, but he always has my respect for his well thought-out writings. to write about Iraq.