Liberal Christian leaders argued yesterday that the moral values held by most Americans are much broader than the handful of issues emphasized by religious conservatives in the 2004 presidential campaign.
Battling the notion that "values voters" swept President Bush to victory because of opposition to gay marriage and abortion, three liberal groups released a post-election poll in which 33 percent of voters said the nation's most urgent moral problem was "greed and materialism" and 31 percent said it was "poverty and economic justice." Sixteen percent cited abortion, and 12 percent named same-sex marriage.
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But the religious leaders acknowledged that the Christian right had reached more voters than the Christian left. Some said it was time for "moderate and progressive" religious groups, as well as the Democratic Party, to rethink their positions.
"One of the things a few of us are talking about is a reassessment of how the Democrats deal with an issue like abortion -- could there be a more moderate ground, where even if they retained their pro-choice stance, they talked about uniting pro-choice people together to actually do something about the abortion rate?" said Jim Wallis, editor of the liberal evangelical journal Sojourners.
If the Democratic Party were to "welcome pro-life Democrats, Catholics and evangelicals and have a serious conversation with them" about ways to reduce teenage pregnancy, facilitate adoptions and improve conditions for low-income women, it would "work wonders" among centrist evangelicals and Catholics, Wallis said.
In a conference call with reporters to discuss the election and the new poll, Wallis and three other Christian leaders argued that many religious Americans do not fall neatly into liberal or conservative camps.
They contended that there is a vast religious middle, including "progressive evangelicals," "resurgent mainline Protestants" and "socially conservative African Americans," that could be attracted by biblically based "prophetic" appeals to make peace, fight poverty and spread social justice.
"The values that were promoted most within the conservative religious community were almost always tied to a fear factor, and that was not necessarily the case in the Democratic strategy, and I would say should not be the case," said the Rev. Welton Gaddy, head of the Interfaith Alliance.
The nationwide telephone poll of 10,689 voters was conducted by Zogby International for the Catholic peace group Pax Christi, the New York-based civic advocacy group Res Publica and the Washington-based Center for American Progress, a think tank allied with Democrats. It had a margin of error of plus or minus one percentage point.
The poll found that 42 percent of voters cited the war in Iraq as the "moral issue" that most influenced their choice of candidates, while 13 percent cited abortion and 9 percent same-sex marriage. Asked to name the greatest threat to marriage, 31 percent said "infidelity," 25 percent cited "rising financial burdens" and 22 percent named same-sex marriage.
Tom Perriello, an organizer at Res Publica, said the poll shows that "while there may be a solid 20 percent who are very focused on abortion and gay marriage, for most Americans of faith, there are other moral issues of greater urgency, and that's where the religious middle is."
Throughout the presidential campaign, opinion polls showed that frequent churchgoers were far more likely to support Bush than his Democratic rival, Sen. John F. Kerry. Exit polls on Election Day found that 22 percent of voters cited "moral values" as the key to their vote, and they tilted 4 to 1 toward Bush.
The answer to this "God gap," Perriello said, "is that progressives need to embrace the deep moral critique that people are looking for and make that case on poverty and Iraq, and not just try to talk more about God or outpace the Republicans on gay marriage or abortion."
According to Perriello, liberal religious groups registered 500,000 new voters, made 400,000 get-out-the-vote phone calls, and raised $1.75 million for newspaper and radio ads during the campaign. But he said the post-election poll found that 71 percent of voters had heard from the religious right while 38 percent said they had heard from the religious left.