Moral Values, reduced

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Back to the Moral Values debate. A recent Pew survey shows that between November 2004 and now Moral Values has slipped from 27 percent to 10 percent as the issue that “would matter most in your presidential vote.” Lo and behold, the economy has gone from 21 percent to 50 percent. Is this surprising? Hardly.

So what’s the debate? Well, Gilgoff and Dionne are taking the decline in Moral Values as culturally and politically significant, while over at Bold Faith Type, Beth Dahlman rehearses the liberal critique of 2004 as the “Moral Values Election”–i.e. Moral Values was a bad category, and the fact that a plurality of voters selected it created a lot of sound and fury but signified nothing.

But actually, Moral Values did mean something. What it pointed to was the evangelical vote, as John Green and I showed here. Way disproportionately, evangelical voters selected Moral Values as their most important issues, with the result that Bush won those regions of the country where Moral Values came in first, and lost those regions where it didn’t. The lesson of this Pew Survey, then, is this: Since 2004, evangelicals have moved away from choosing Moral Values as their most important issue. Politicians would be wise to take note, especially Republican ones.

  • Mark,
    Thanks for linking to our post. I do want to clarify one thing. We never wanted to say that “moral values” was meaningless but rather, deeply flawed. Our critique, as I stated in the post, is the dichotomy the question sets up between “morals” and other issues. I suspect that if in 2004 and in the recent Pew poll the question had said “opposing same sex marriage and abortion” or “the personal character of the Presidential candidate” or “having a President that shares my faith” we would find some of the same interesting patterns you and John Green have noted, but without reinforcing the notion that only a few issues have “moral” components.

  • Mark Silk

    Fair enough–up to a point. Like it or not, “Moral Values” has become code language, and is understood by American voters as such.

  • But isn’t the meaning of the code a bit murky? Many pundits and conservative advocacy groups take “moral values” to mean opposition to abortion and gay marriage, but when voters are asked they’ve tended to say the character of the candidates (see here and here). However, even if “moral values” was universally accepted to mean opposition to abortion and gay marriage, it’s still incorrect to think that only one or two issues relate to “morals.” It’s part of FPL’s mission to do that education and raise up the moral components of issues like torture, poverty, the economy, etc. We know it’s a heavy lift but that doesn’t stop us from trying!

  • Mark Silk

    This is a subject that demands more than quick blogging back and forth. For sure, progressive types don’t want to surrender the term “moral” and are entitled to fight to get it back. At the same time, it’s not clear (to me, anyway) that the studies you cite reckon correctly with the way coded language works. “Moral Values” may not be decomposible into a set of positions, even on the Religion Right. There, it stands for, well, “us.” And the voting population pretty much gets it.
    But there’s something else to bear in mind. Sometimes coded language takes on meanings its advocates don’t at all intend. I’ve argued here that a lot of people who support abortion rights are now calling themselves “pro-life.” So it’s murky. But I’m inclined to think the progressives should chill on the “moral values” question.