Remember how the 2004 election was supposed to be all about national security and choosing a commander-in-chief, but all anyone wanted to talk about the morning after were exit polls that seemed to show “moral values” as the single most important issue of the election?
Those polls suggested that out of 121 million voters nationwide, about 21 million (17.6 percent of the electorate) voted for George W. Bush because of “moral values” — astonishing number given that the popular vote was decided by only about 3 million votes.
So astonishing that Democrats looked poised to spend much of their energy in the run-up to the 2006 midterms on a “We Have Values Too!” tour — at least until Jack Abramoff conspired with Mark Foley to have Hurricane Katrina destroy the Golden Mosque in Samarra. After that, voters didn't really care what the Democrats' values were; they just wanted the GOP out. The Dems never really got around to sorting out their relationship with the elusive “values voter.”
Fast-forward to 2011. The term “values voter” has become a (somewhat inane) synonym for “social conservative,” and while almost no one thinks that social-conservative issues like abortion and gay marriage are going to be decisive in 2012, the issue that almost everyone thinks will be decisive — jobs and the economy — has been taken up by both sides in overtly moral terms. “Moral values,” it seems, are once again likely to play a significant role in our electoral politics.
The Left's most boisterous moral case for economic reform is not coming from the White House or Democratic leaders in Congress, but from the folks at Occupy Wall Street. What OWS lacks in political coherence, it makes up for in volume. Unfortunately for Democrats, the incoherence of OWS's moral outrage — they're against Wall Street, but what are they for? — is compounded by the inconvenient fact that much of what the movement does manage to say is not articulated in ways that are likely to resonate with the moral sensibilities of the American public.
Custom and culture have conspired to make biblical morality the lingua franca of American moral deliberation since before the Founding — even across otherwise intransigent barriers like wealth, social status, and even race. And while we have often taken that heritage and common moral vocabulary for granted, most Americans remain suspicious of blatant irreligiosity.
So it's noteworthy that a recent Gallup poll showed that 52 percent of voters who are Democrats or lean Democrat seldom or never attend church or other place of worship. That number is up only slightly from the same poll in early 2008 and closely tracks the shift among both Republicans and the general population, but it's significant nonetheless. Next to race, there is no more reliable indicator of a given American's political preferences than how often he attends his place of worship, and the more frequently he goes to church (or synagogue, mosque, etc.), the more likely he is to vote Republican.
Of course, not going to church isn't the same as not believing in God or not having any religion. And millions of Americans remain both devoutly religious and reliably Democrat. Still, the fact that a majority of Democrats seldom or never attend any place of worship only reinforces the common perception of Democrats as the Party of the Irreligious. A perception like that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Another recent poll showed that only 40 percent of Democrats think that the Occupy movement shares their values, and support for OWS is strongest among those who are most irreligious. While it's true that the religious Left has shown great interest in OWS, it's also true that significant swaths of the religious Left — having traded in biblical orthodoxy for political correctness — have been deeply secularized themselves.
If Dems can't find a way to articulate the moral case for their politics beyond the secular language of ideology, class warfare, and anarchy, the divisions that are beginning to show within the Democratic Party may only grow worse.
It's not that no religiously informed public moral arguments can be found to support the preferred policies of the Left — as the Social Gospel movement, the labor movement, and the civil-rights movement clearly demonstrated — it's that the Left appears to be increasingly populated by folks who aren't interested in doing so, and are becoming increasingly less able to do so effectively.
It's not pandering to religious voters to suggest that the more overtly secular the Left becomes — something Democrats' rush to embrace OWS seems to be highlighting, unless you consider Guy Fawkes a religious figure — the more it risks alienating itself from the deep sensibilities and intuitions of most Americans. And that would be bad for both Democrats and the country.
Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society.