Voting Your Values

The complex relationship between church and state

“I, as an elected official, do not believe that I should let my personal values influencehow I vote on legislation.”

We’ve certainly heard such statements by political candidates and by those already in public office. Do they really mean that? Equally important, do voters want to elect people who feel this way?

Most political scientists and political philosophers would say that such statements reveal a misunderstanding of the nature of law and public policy – that, in fact, law and public policy are the ways in which a society decides among, enshrines and enforces its values; thus, society decides whether killing or stealing, evading income taxes or snorting cocaine is wrong and should be punished using government resources.

Virtually all public policies, explicitly or implicitly, reflect the values of the officials who enact them. Whether those values come from religion, a moral philosophy or a secular world view, they guide public officials – for better or worse – in making the full range of public choices. And that is how it should be, assuming that those government officials are chosen by and reflect the will of the majority of the people.

What a candidate or office holder who hopes not to let values intrude on decision making probably means is something a bit different. That candidate is probably saying that, in a pluralistic society such as the United States, with constitutional protections of freedom of religion and separation of church and state, narrow and sectarian religious beliefs should not be imposed on those who do not adhere to them.

The candidate also may be reflecting another important value basic to our political system – that we should reserve the widest scope of liberty or freedom for the individual, so long as it doesn’t infringe upon the rights, liberty or freedom of others. So our candidate may be saying, “I hold dear individual liberty, and I believe that I shouldn’t impose my personal moral beliefs on others.” Again, laws do this all the time, so our candidate probably should add “when no one, or society, is harmed in the process.”

Of course, both these perspectives beg other questions. What one person sees as a narrow religious belief others will see as a universal moral principle; or, what one person sees as involving only personal choice may be viewed by others as causing harm to innocent victims or to society – gambling, prostitution, recreational drug use and abortion are some obvious examples.

The choices among candidates that citizens make also reflect their values and beliefs. In a recent massive survey of public opinion in the United States [1], the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 56 percent of the American public said religion was “very important in their lives” (and 82 percent said that it was at least “somewhat important.”) Similarly, 78 percent expressed a belief in absolute standards of right and wrong. It is not clear, however, that these figures mean that a large proportion of the electorate takes their religious faith with them to the ballot box.

Only 29 percent of those voicing belief in absolute standards of right and wrong say that these beliefs stem from religious teachings, a majority (52 percent) citing instead “practical experience and common sense.” And only 14 percent claim to rely on religious beliefs as a guide to political thinking.

Doubtless some of this stems from a desire to see oneself as an independent thinker and, perhaps, a typically American concern about the appropriateness of mixing church and state. More time to reflect (and perhaps different interview questions) might elicit greater appreciation for the deep and lasting roots of adult beliefs.In any case, the votes that voters cast are translated, through their elected officials, into public policies that enshrine some moral values (but not others) into law and will cause government to pursue some goals and ignore others. In the face of this reality, how does the conscientious voter decide?

The problem for the average voter when confronting a choice at the ballot box is that the issue positions that distinguish the two major political parties do not form coherent and opposing world views between which to choose.

The Democratic and Republican parties have retained their traditional postures regarding economic issues of regulation, taxes and government spending on social programs, but other issue dimensions have joined these as important distinguishing characteristics.

First, since the presidential election of 1964, the Republican Party has become the party of “racial conservatism,” reversing a longstanding situation in which the Republican Party had been at least as liberal on racial issues as the Democratic Party with its southern conservative wing; also, since Roe v. Wade in 1973, the Republican Party has become the conservative voice on a range of life issues, including abortion, euthanasia and stem cell research. And since the early 2000s, war and peace have become issues that divide the parties, although not always neatly.

While the issue dimensions that divide the parties all have obvious moral components, they do not necessarily hang together. There is certainly nothing illogical about supporting affirmative action for disadvantaged minorities and adopting a conservative position on stem cell research, while also supporting more government spending on poverty programs and environmental protection. But that voter is not going to see either political party as mirroring those views.

Conversely, today’s libertarian who thinks the government ought to stay out of all thoseareas will not find a comfortable home in either of the two major parties.

To see the problem, one need look no further than the list of critical issues that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops urges Catholics and responsible citizens to consider in reaching a voting choice: defending innocent life by opposing abortion, euthanasia and stem cell research; avoiding war and promoting peace; opposing the death penalty; defending marriage and the family; ensuring health care, protecting Social Security; assuring adequate housing and food for the poor; and welcoming immigrants. [2]

While there are candidates who fit this profile of issue concerns, it is less likely that they hold the endorsement of either of the major political parties for statewide or national office. It is perhaps for these reasons that the number of voters without a political party affiliation has remained at a historically high level for the last 30 years, and increasing numbers of former partisans – of both parties – claim that they have not abandoned their party, but that their party has abandoned them.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2004 presidential election, the first cut of analysis based on exit polls claimed that so-called “values voters” had made a decisive difference in George W. Bush’s favor. A significant percentage of voters surveyed (around 20 percent) reported that “moral issues” were the most important factor influencing their vote, and these voters voted heavily for Bush.

Although this conclusion was softened considerably upon further analysis of the data, the idea remained that Bush’s margin of victory owed a great deal to a coterie of evangelical and other conservative Christians who had been brought to the polls by concerns over issues of sexual morality. This popular perception, in turn, provoked a certain amount of soul-searching on both sides of the political spectrum.

The Democrats, for their part, worried that their defense of privacy and individual choice on questions of personal morality had led Democratic candidates to be reluctant to use the language of values in other areas where it clearly shaped their positions, such as poverty and peace. In so doing, they had let the opposition, wrongly they felt, lay claim to the moral high ground. As a result, in the election cycles of 2006 and 2008, Democratic congressional and presidential candidates were far more willing to talk about matters of faith and values.

On the other side, some evangelical Christians expressed concern that they were being portrayed as fixated on sexual morality to the exclusion of other societal concerns. Early in the second Bush administration, representatives of evangelical churches pressed for greater attention to poverty, climate change and HIV/AIDS in Africa.

So what is the conscientious voter to do? As the Conference of Catholic Bishops advised in an even-handed way, voters should consider the full range of issues, take into account their relative priorities, factor in the personal convictions and commitments of the candidates, and use their own God-given capabilities of discernment and judgment in arriving at a voting decision. [3]

And whatever decision that is, remember that the best political decisions are those that reflect the values and vision of the voters about the kind of society they wish to live in and leave to future generations.

About the author
Nancy Zingale is professor emerita of political science at St. Thomas, where she also served as executive assistant to the president 1997-2006. In 1988, she was chosen Professor of the Year by her faculty colleagues. She is co-author of
Political Behavior of the American Electorate (now in its 11th edition) and Partisan Realignment: Voters, Parties and Government in American History.


[1] Statistics on Religion in America Report, U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2008, see religions.pewforum/org/reports

[2] Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States. USCCB, Washington, November 2007.

[3] Ibid.

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