November 11, 2004

The “moral values” voter has become a popular way of identifying a segment of the population that played a key role in the re-election of President Bush. But who are these people? What “moral values” do they hold? How do their values play out in their lives?

The term usually gets pinned on people who oppose same-sex marriage, abortion, and stem cell research. Reporters use such terms as evangelical, religious, Christian, and conservative to describe them. And often, journalists use these terms interchangeably. But what do they know about the topic? And what do they need to know?

We need to look behind the “moral values” label to address such questions. When we do, we will come across a host of descriptions. They show a spectrum of differences that get overlooked when we lump them under just one term. 

Among the most common voices we hear associated with the Christian, religious, evangelical conservative view of moral values include James Dobson, the Rev. Rick Warren, and Charles Colson.

Dobson heads the Focus on the Family organization based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Warren pastors Saddleback Church in California and is the author of “The Purpose Driven Life.” Colson founded the Prison Fellowship Ministries after he spent time in prison for his part in the Watergate scandal. They, and others, have been in the forefront of those appropriating the “moral values” label.

But there are other voices that see other moral values at stake as well. And they claim the evangelical description, too. In fact, Tony Campolo, an American Baptist minister, professor of sociology and an evangelical says in a recent interview on the BeliefNet website that he believes “evangelical Christianity had been hijacked.” That view prompted him to address the challenges faced by the evangelical movement in his new book, “Speaking My Mind.” In the preface of his book, he writes:

There is a common perception among those outside our community of faith that we evangelicals are clones, and that when they have spoken with one of us, they have spoken with us all. Too often they see us as people who have a single way of thinking and talking … To be credible, we must demonstrate that we are a body of individuals, each of whom can think for herself or himself.

Campolo, who considers poverty, war, and the environment among a number of moral issues evangelicals need to address, uses his book to explore and explain the controversial issues within the evangelical movement.

The search for a variety of voices is essential if journalists are to more accurately depict people who view morals as an important concern. The Associated Press included multiple views in a story that showed the political and religious tussle about the significant role moral values played.

Alan Cooperman at The Washington Post identifies other voices in a recent story that focused on “liberal Christian leaders,” and a new poll on moral values. In this poll, almost twice as many voters cited “greed and materialism” and “poverty and economic justice” more often than abortion or same-sex marriage. Among those Cooperman interviewed were Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners, and the Rev. Welton Gaddy, head of the Interfaith Alliance. Cooperman writes:

In a conference call with reporters to discuss the election and the new poll, Wallis and three other Christian leaders argued that many religious Americans do not fall neatly into liberal or conservative camps … They contended that there is a vast religious middle, including “progressive evangelicals,” “resurgent mainline Protestants” and “socially conservative African Americans,” that could be attracted by biblically based “prophetic” appeals to make peace, fight poverty, and spread social justice.

The next step for journalists is to wade into the complexity of this “moral values” arena. Cover the full spectrum of people who see values as a critical component of their lives. Look beyond the labels. Visit their places of worship.

Look into the programs they say reflect their values. Offer fuller profiles showing how they live them out. And don’t forget that many people who profess no religious affiliation also see moral values as an important element in their lives.

Learn from websites that focus on religion and the press, such as The Revealer, produced by New York University, GetReligion, created by two religion journalists (Terry Mattingly and Doug Le Blanc), and ReligionLink, sponsored by the Religion Newswriters Association.

If journalists manage to capture the diversity of this topic, they may help the public understand that moral values involve a way of life — not just a label.

Aly Colón spent a day in 2002 as a consultant conducting writing sessions for Focus on the Family magazine and its online news staff.

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Aly Colón is the John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Previously, Colón led…
Aly Colón

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