Values Voters: Engaged and Optimistic

Depressed.  Demoralized.  Disengaged.  These are the alliterative adjectives that immediately spring to mind when one reads the mainstream media’s assessment of the prevailing mood of religious conservatives in the lead up to the 2008 elections.  The Economist recently declared the evangelical movement “in the doldrums” and its leadership “out of touch,” while leftwing evangelical Jim Wallis penned a piece for Time magazine titled: “The Religious Right’s Era is Over.” 

The reasons for the supposed despondency are manifold, ranging from the legislative (inaction on a federal marriage amendment), to the moral (Republican sex scandals) to the electoral (an alleged lack of a viable and credible conservative presidential candidate).  The conclusion, however, is always the same:  Religious conservatives’ political influence and interest are on the wane.  

Not so fast.  If the thousands of activists at last weekend’s Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., were any indication, religious conservatives are excited, engaged and ready to fight to ensure that their values are represented on Election Day.  Moreover, how do those who question the relevance of conservative Christians explain the appearance at the values conference of all nine major GOP presidential candidates.  Clearly, values voters matter as much as ever.

The media often point to the lack of a consensus candidate among religious conservatives as proof of a fractured movement.  But the lack of consensus could be seen as evidence of the maturation of a political movement.  Once infamously derided by the Washington Post as “poor, uneducated and easy to command,” evangelicals are some of the most well-informed, thoughtful voters, and their views often reflect a deep understanding of politics and public policy.  In the Washington Briefing online straw poll, nine presidential candidates received at least 100 votes, just one indication of the inappropriateness of the “easy to command” label.   

Since bursting onto the political scene a generation ago, evangelicals have learned that prudence and discernment are not just theological virtues, but political ones, too.  Religious conservatives have come to understand, sometimes at high cost, that actions speak louder than words, and they are loathe to support candidates who merely talk the talk about defending marriage and upholding the sanctity of human life without backing up those words with legislative initiative. 

Many Christian conservatives are dissatisfied with the current state of our politics and culture.  But the leftwing media betray their ignorance of Christian conservatives by assuming, hopefully, that they will opt out of the political process.  To most Christians, political engagement, at least to the extent of making well-informed choices at the ballot box, is a moral imperative.  They understand that political matters have profound and far-reaching moral implications. 

Students of the Bible understand that people of faith are stewards of their gifts and talents, their areas of influence and opportunities, and that as stewards they will be called to give account of the management of their lives and resources. That accountability requires people of faith to be engaged in the democracy that is the United States of America. The media would have us believe that, having not won the battle for hearts and minds on all fronts, legislatively or otherwise, Christians are prepared to pack up and go home. But there is a duty to be involved and active in a government that depends on good citizenship to survive.
As the founding fathers noted, liberty descends from God to the people, who then give some authority to government for limited purposes. And people of faith know they must be eternally vigilant on behalf of this great nation and keep in check those who would abuse their authority for selfish goals. Missing in the media’s interpretation of Values Voters is an understanding of the deeply held commitment people of faith have to their duty of citizenship.
The 2008 election will be critical for values voters, who have come to recognize an important truth:  that the Culture War has not ended, it’s merely developed several new fronts. Even as they slowly win the hearts and minds of their fellow citizens on issues like abortion, conservative people of faith realize that a gap often exists between what most Americans believe and what the law recognizes. 

With so many cultural issues being fought out in the courts, values voters see the judiciary as an important front in the battle for their values.  This importance is punctuated with the realization that the next president could appoint as many as four justices to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Speaking with hundreds of attendees at the values voter conference, it became clear to me that Christians are acutely aware of the causal link that exists between an activist judiciary and the steady erosion of our values over the last generation. 

Christians’ understanding that human life has intrinsic value — given by God — which no man or manmade institution can take away is the foundation of their opposition to abortion.  This view also animates Christians’ concern about Islamic-fascism, an ideology that preaches love of death and practices the slaughter of innocents.  The West’s battle against Islamofascism has emerged as a top tier concern for a growing number of religious conservatives who acknowledge that the culture of death takes many forms. 
In 2004, 12 million new evangelical and millions of conservative Catholic voters — the newest members of the constituency of conscience — catapulted President George W. Bush to a second term and helped secure increased Republican majorities in both houses of Congress.  Only three years on and the leftwing media would have us believe that the movement is on the decline.  Quite the opposite.  Now is precisely the time to keep fighting for our values, and last weekend’s values voter conference proved that many religious conservatives agree.