While deer hunting early one December morning with my uncle we kicked up a big buck in some thick brush. We raised our shotguns and fired at almost the same instant. As the buck went down my uncle began to shout, “I got him, I got him.”
To this day I don’t know for sure which of us “got him.” And when my uncle tells the story he admits we fired at the same time. But when we talk it about he will always say, “Well, I said I got him before you said it, so I got him.”
A similar incident occurred in our recent presidential election. In an exit poll voters were asked to name the most important issue that influenced their decision. Nearly 23 percent chose “moral values.” The war in Iraq and the economy came in second and third respectively.
Leaders of the religious right immediately seized upon the poll as proof of their clout. They argued that the moral values in question were the same moral values the religious right championed during the election–namely abortion and gay marriage. In a political version of my uncle’s infamous, “I got him,” James Dobson and others began to assert that conservative evangelicals had elected the president. This claim led Michael Crowley of the New Republic to dub Dobson a “king maker.”
But the facts indicate that there were influences in the election other than evangelicals and that the phrase “moral values” means different things to different people.
For instance, according to a post-election poll conducted by Zogby International, when voters were asked which moral issues most influenced their vote, 42 percent chose the war in Iraq, 13 percent said abortion and 9 percent said same-sex marriage. When asked what is the most urgent moral problem in American culture, 33 percent cited greed and materialism, 31 percent said poverty and economic justice, 16 percent said abortion and 12 percent same-sex marriage.
The poll also asked voters what they believed was the greatest threat to marriage. Over a third of the respondents said infidelity was the greatest threat, with 31 percent citing rising financial burdens and 22 percent identifying same-sex marriage.
How ever much the religious right would like to be the final religious authority on all things moral in America, they are not. There are serious people of faith who care deeply about the moral character of our country who not only have different moral concerns, but also disagree passionately with the slash and burn politics of the religious right.
The religious right may speak more loudly than others, but that does not mean their concerns are the only ones or even the most important ones. Shouting down the opposition only serves to stifle debate which in the long run will not serve democracy well. If the religious right is not careful they may find themselves standing over the carcass of our wounded political system shouting “I got him.”
The Zogby poll seems to indicate that there are a lot of folks out there who have moral concerns different from the narrow slate offered by the religious right. If that is true this might be a good time for them to find their voices. They don’t need to become another angry chorus proclaiming judgment without grace. But those who think that poverty and greed and violence are also moral issues need to say so, and say so often.
Otherwise the first one to shout “I got him” regardless of who actually got him gets to be in charge.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.