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A new Associated Press-Ipsos poll is yielding important information that will likely have great significance for the so-called “values voter,” and those organizations that promote values voting.

The term “values voter” came into wide usage after the 2004 presidential election. Exit polls indicated that voters were motivated by social and moral concerns and therefore voted “their values.”

Leaders of the Religious Right seized on these polls claiming victory for their own narrow list of culture war issues like abortion and homosexuality. More detailed polling later demonstrated that voters voted their values across a wide spectrum of concerns, some of which included opposition to the Iraq war and concerns about poverty.

The new AP poll seems to suggest that values voters have broadened their concerns even more since the 2004 election. If these concerns remain constant until the 2008 election, the value most cherished by these voters will be “honesty.”

The poll asked respondents to pick what they considered the most important qualities or characteristics they look for in a president. They were offered nine options including strong character, or taking a stand on specific issues, or leadership, or experience, or intelligence.

Over 55 percent of those who responded to the poll indicated that “strong character” was most important. And character for them is defined in terms of honesty and integrity.

Conservative Christians might find some of the other the particulars of the poll interesting. For instance, when we break the 55 percent down into specific areas of character, only 4 percent of those polled indicated that belief in God was an important quality. And morality only received 6 percent.

Some Christian leaders such as Don Swarthout, President of Christians Reviving America’s Values (CRAVE) called the results of the poll “scary.”

“If this poll is accurate then Christian values will not play a role in the 2008 presidential elections,” Swarthout told the Christian Newswire. “We have silently watched the world become unconcerned over so many Christian issues … the other side appears to be winning so much of the time.”

There is another way of understanding the poll. It would seem that voters do care deeply about the moral character of candidates; they just don’t need to have that character presented in a God-flavored wrapper. Voters don’t mind if candidates possess faith-based character, especially when it takes the form of honesty and integrity, it just doesn’t matter to most of them what particular faith creates that character.

Swarthout seems to suggest that character is the unique possession of Christianity. But such a notion is absurd. The idea that virtue exists only among Christians would mean that among other faiths, and among those with no faith, character is not possible. I suppose that would also imply that among Christians there would not be any who suffer from a lack of character, but we won’t travel that path for now.

Overall, the poll could reveal a positive political development. For the past two decades, morality has been narrowly defined in a short list of culture war issues. It might be refreshing to see voters hold candidates accountable for something as simple, and as obvious, as telling the truth.

Additionally, conservative Christians might consider whether their culture war approach to politics has actually made voters suspicious of those who profess belief in God. One thing is clear, whether candidates believe in God or not, they better not get caught telling a lie.

James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of AuburnFirstBaptistChurch in
Auburn, Ala.

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