Public Religion Research Institute released a post-election poll yesterday, which follows up on their American Values Survey released earlier this fall. The data on racial attitudes in the Tea Party and shifts in public opinion on gay rights have already made a splash in the blogosphere, but what jumped out at me was a finding suggesting that the distinction often drawn between “kitchen table” elections and “values voter” elections is a false dichotomy:
Nearly three-quarters (73%) of voters said that compared to previous elections, their faith or religious values played the same role this year in how they decided to vote. Nearly equal numbers of voters said that faith played a larger role this year (6%) as said it played a smaller role (8%).
Even in an election dominated by economic concerns (47% said the economy was their top concern, compared to 19 percent who said health care was most important), the role of faith didn’t diminish. This suggests that religion isn’t a compartmentalized influence only pertaining to social issues.
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Appearing on Face the Nation Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said
“People who supported us – political independents – want it repealed and replaced with something else. I think we owe it to them to try.”
As we noted last week, the interpretation of the election as a mandate to repeal health reform is dubious at best. According to the National Election Pool’s exit polls, 28 percent of midterm voters were independents, 56 percent of whom voted for Republican candidates. That equates to 15.7 percent of midterm voters being independents who cast their ballots for GOP House candidates. Meanwhile, 62 percent of voters said the economy was the most important issue facing the country, compared to 18 percent who said health care was the most important. (Of this 18 percent, 52 % voted for Democrats.)
Some crosstabs of the exit polls could settle this very clearly, but even without them, it’s really, really hard to make the case based on the data that we do have that independent voters want the GOP to repeal health care. Throughout the health care debate FPL, independent experts and faith leaders played a key role in fact-checking false claims about health care reform. Based on the claims made by anti-reform leaders in the wake of the election, our work on this front isn’t over.
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In a press conference touting his Faith and Freedom Coalition’s success in driving Christian conservatives to vote for Republicans in the mid-term election, Ralph Reed made a particular point of noting the work he and allies did to defeat pro-life Democrats like Kathy Dahlkemper, Steve Driehaus and others.
Reed justified working against these Members of Congress principally on the false claim that the health care reform bill they supported would lead to “unrestricted taxpayer funding for abortion.”
Though independent experts have consistently debunked this claim, Reed is so confident he’s right, his only explanation for why pro-life Congresspeople of good faith would disagree with him is that they are unprincipled puppets of their party leadership.
“If you claim to be a pro-life Democrat but you voted consistently with Nancy Pelosi…and against your pro-life convictions, you pay a price at the ballot box.”
In reality these representatives stood up for their pro-life principles when it mattered the most — when sticking to them would help save lives, even though it would also result in the steep political price of unrelenting false attacks from partisan operatives like Ralph Reed.
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It’s rare to find a politician these days who doesn’t lose his convictions and ability to inspire when he arrives in Washington. Rep. Tom Perriello, who was defeated on Tuesday night in a wave of voter dissatisfaction with the economy, is that rare breed. He leaves Congress holding his head high. A leader who has roots in the progressive faith community, Perriello co-founded Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good (where I worked for three years), helped launch Faithful America, co-founded Res Publica, a global civic advocacy group, and was a key player in starting Avaaz.org, an online advocacy community working on issues like global poverty, climate change and Middle East peace. Tom’s work with child soldiers and pro-democracy groups in Sierra Leone played a major role in the peace and reconciliation process that ended twelve years of violence in that country. He did all this before winning a House seat at the age of 34 in a district with decidedly conservative leanings. Now, if that doesn’t make you feel like a slacker, I’m not sure what does!
A lot of politicians pay lip service to values. Tom’s campaigns, and his brief tenure in Congress, reflected faith and values in action. He pledged 10 percent of his campaign staff time to tithing. Volunteer stops in Virginia’s Fifth Congressional district included visits to soup kitchens, domestic violence shelters, senior centers and Habitat for Humanity projects. Perriello’s Common Good Summer initiative mobilized hundreds of college students working on his campaigns to perform service in the community. Living out the social justice teachings of his Catholic faith, Tom believes political leadership is about right and wrong, not left or right. You can always tell more about a person in defeat than in victory. In an e-mail to supporters after the election, Tom showed the mix of grace and grit that won over so many:
I promised you I would have your back against the powerful interests in Washington, and last night, you had mine. Even though we fell short of reelection, we defied the pundits in the roughest of political years. Because I come out of faith-based justice work instead of politics, I can see last night as a victory for conviction and hard work for the idea that when you fight for the people, the people win…Because of our work together, we turned near-economic collapse into nine straight months of private sector job growth. Because of our work together, 1,800 homes in our district have been weatherized, putting people to work making $20 an hour. Because of our work together, over 20,000 young people in our district are getting more aid to afford college. Over 120 small business owners got the loans to live their American dream. And being a woman is no longer considered a pre-existing condition in this country…As I told the crowd last night, my father made me promise when I entered politics that I would always consider Judgement Day more important than election day, because doing what’s right is more important than winning elections. I believe he is smiling on us today, and that he is thankful for all of you who sacrificed so much to offer a better kind of politics in America.
You haven’t heard the last of Tom Perriello. Those of us who believe that faith, values and a commitment to the common good can restore a sense of higher purpose in politics will be watching his future closely. There is every reason to believe his best days await.
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America woke up to a new political reality this morning. Voters anxious about the economy delivered the House to Republicans, though Democrats held onto control of the Senate. In many ways, this wasn’t a big surprise. The president’s party historically loses seats in the midterms, and the results reflected deep anxiety over the current unemployment rate and deepening economic despair, as well as an emboldened Tea Party movement on the right. A Los Angeles Times’ editorial today provides a measured analysis that should help buck up progressives and others on the left wallowing in an endless round of what ifs:
In 1956, Eisenhower crushed Adlai Stevenson in their rematch; two years after that, Democrats picked up 48 seats in the House and 13 in the Senate. Those patterns have repeated more recently: Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, only to have Democrats lose 53 House and seven Senate seats in 1994; George W. Bush was reelected in 2004 and lost control of Congress two years later. Given that history, Tuesday’s results are hardly astonishing; indeed, they are more part of a trend than an aberration. Nevertheless, they do reveal powerful forces at work in our politics today. Specifically, they reflect the descent from 2008′s hopeful zeitgeist to 2010′s anger and bewilderment, emotions that found purchase in many of the bitter, partisan races decided Tuesday.
Faith in Public Life crunched some exit poll numbers last night and asked experts on the intersection of faith and politics to provide some commentary. First, the numbers.
Eighty-seven percent of voters said they were worried about the economy, and 62% said the economy is the most important issue facing the country. Exit polling, however, debunks the narrative being perpetuated by some partisans that the election was a mandate to implement a Republican agenda. It’s hard to make that case when forty-three percent of voters polled had a favorable view of the Democratic party, compared to 42% who had a favorable view of the Republican party. In many ways, the results last night can be read as a desperate cry from a weary electorate hungry for more bipartisan cooperation to lift the nation out of our economic crisis. Voters in 2010 were noticeably older and more politically conservative than the 2008 electorate. In 2008, 18% of voters were under 30; this year 11% were under 30. In 2008, 53% of voters were 45 or older; this year 67% were 45 or older. A significant flip was evident among Catholic voters. In this election, 54% percent of Catholics supported Republican House candidates, compared to 42 percent in 2008 and 44 percent in 2006. In 2008, 54% of Catholic voters voted for President Obama. The Senate race in Pennsylvania was an outlier, as Catholics nearly evenly split on support for Democratic candidate Joe Sestak and Republican candidate (and winner) Pat Toomey (51% breaking for Toomey and 49% for Sestak).
Faith leaders and analysts put these numbers in perspective, offering insights into what happened with religious voters yesterday, from the role of the Tea Party to the importance of framing the economy as a moral values issue.
Steve Schneck, Director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington: “Our nation’s diverse faith traditions, especially Catholic social teaching, emphasize the common good and the essential role government has in building a just economy that works for all. This tradition and powerful message is not heard enough today and is urgently needed at a time of economic anxiety, growing ideological polarization and voter anger.”
Dr. Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute: “One thing is clear from this election – the Tea Party movement was a mixed blessing for the Republican Party. This group, which represents about 1-in-10 Americans in the general population, has captured some of the enthusiasm, and part of the membership of, one of the key groups typically rallying the Republican base, the Christian Right. …On the other hand, the Tea Party hurt GOP chances in the Senate by backing several candidates who faced an uphill climb appealing to mainstream voters in state-wide elections.”
Rev. Jennifer Butler, Executive Director of Faith in Public Life: “The faith community knows firsthand how hard families have been hit by our economic crisis, and we know that this election reflected voters’ frustration with a still-stagnant economy. The fact that an overwhelming percentage of voters ranked the economy as their top concern speaks not only to individual anxieties, but also to our concerns about our nation and its values. Economic injustices are moral injustices.”
I will leave it to the professional pundits and party leaders to break down the political spin, but it’s clear that elected officials and candidates hoping to win over anxious voters in the next few years need to talk less about GDP, interest rates or unemployment rates and more about values, the dignity of work, and the common good. There is a deep well of moral wisdom from our nation’s diverse faith traditions waiting to be tapped.
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