We're Saved. You Lost. Now What?

By Michael Skube
Michael Skube teaches journalism at Elon University. He is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for criticism.

Los Angeles Times

November 8, 2004

"America has spoken," President Bush told cheering supporters last week after Sen. John F. Kerry conceded defeat.

But what did America say? And which America had spoken? The broad swath of red states extending from the South across the Midwest and the Great Plains? Or the blue states that sit like islands on the edges of the great red Republican sea? The president's margin of victory — 51% to 48% — was clear but hardly a landslide. The voices that spoke decisively on Nov. 2 were those of churchgoers, and what they said is even clearer.

"The voters have delivered a moral mandate," D. James Kennedy, president of Coral Ridge Ministries in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., declared. "Now that values voters have delivered for George Bush, he must deliver for their values. The defense of innocent unborn human life, the protection of marriage and the nomination and confirmation of federal judges who will interpret the Constitution, not make law from the bench, must be first priorities, come January."

So there you have it. No other issue outranked "moral values" — not terrorism, not Iraq, not the economy. And 80% of those who called morality paramount said they voted for Bush.

If the exit polls didn't reveal precisely what moral values meant, no one was in the dark — least of all the voters. On election day, I dispatched a class of journalism students at Elon University to voting stations in Alamance County, N.C., to do some polling of their own. The results — in a county half an hour's drive from liberal Chapel Hill and Durham — reflected voting patterns in many places: Bush by a bundle. But why?

"I voted for Christianity," one man told a student pollster. He is the human face to Samuel P. Huntington's incendiary argument that America's national identity rests on two pillars — a British concept of civil society and a full-blooded Christianity.

Bush's supporters set out to reclaim that identity, none with greater commitment than evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics (talk about strange bedfellows). These are folks who take their Scripture straight up, and the Solomons of polling science hadn't worked them fully into their calculus. "Moral values" hints at broad predispositions, but the churchgoers came out and said it: This was not a quadrennial choice of change or continuity, even with a war going badly and an economy moving slowly. This was an election about same-sex marriage, about abortion, about the role of religion in American life.

"Now comes the revolution," Richard Viguerie, the conservative direct-mail fundraising pioneer, said Wednesday. More ominously, Viguerie wrote in a letter to other conservatives: "Make no mistake — conservative Christians and 'values voters' won this election for George W. Bush and Republicans in Congress. It's crucial that the Republican leadership not forget this — as much as some will try. Liberals, many in the media and inside the Republican Party, are urging the president to 'unite' the country by discarding the allies that earned him another four years. They're urging him to discard us conservative Catholics and Protestants, people for whom moral values are the most important issue."

Politics is the art of compromise, but there always have been issues that one side or another declared nonnegotiable. They are always the hard ones, but often the ones that drive social change. In the middle of the 19th century, Americans went to war over slavery. Then as now, the pulpit was a political forum. The most righteous anti-slavery voices were those of Christian preachers. Today's conservatives, in calling for an end to abortion, clothe themselves in the ill-fitting garb of abolitionists.

Half a century ago, Southerners declared their "way of life" — by which they meant segregation — a value that could not be compromised, and moral support could be heard from the pulpits on Sunday. Mixing of the races was abhorrent to most white Christians. Other preachers, North and South, white and black, were equally insistent that Christianity demanded nothing less than an end to segregation.

As polarized as the nation has been during the Bush presidency, it is nothing like the tortuous upheaval the United States underwent in the 1950s and 1960s to provide civil rights to blacks. Cities burned, people died. Almost simultaneously, the nation was riven by a war in Vietnam that became even more unpopular than the war in Iraq.

And yet Americans eventually came to accept integration. By most measures, the South is more integrated than the North. Race remains with us, but it has receded. In the same way, the war in Vietnam is a painful memory, not the cause of student rioting or college buildings being held hostage.

Is it conceivable that, 50 years from now, same-sex marriage would be as accepted as interracial marriage? The question is wrongly posed. What we cannot conceive in the present, we cannot easily conceive in the future. For most Americans, marriage means exactly what 11 more states on Nov. 2 said it means — the union between one man and one woman.

Is it conceivable that Americans, most of them Christians of one stripe or another, will one day reach a common understanding on abortion?

The easy answers in both cases are no and no.

And yet, and yet …

We witness every day things that many Americans once thought inconceivable — in the workplace, in schools, in social life. They came about only because private belief gave way to social necessity. But there are beliefs firmly held, and then there are beliefs that many regard as sacred.

Pollsters and the media assume that people care mostly about material well-being. That, after all, is what they care mostly about. The consequence is that they fail to see people as they really are. Or accept them on their own terms.

For most Americans, life has both a material and a spiritual dimension. The one they will sacrifice, if they must. The other, never.