U.S. Government: Champion of Traditional Values?

by Linda Lyons, Education and Youth Editor

Exit polls conducted by the Associated Press on Election Day reveal that more American voters chose "moral values," rather than the economy, terrorism, or Iraq, as the issue most important to them in the voting booth. This finding has recently come under some fire as too broad and ambiguous to provide President George W. Bush with a mandate to push his moral agenda; indeed, "moral values" could cover everything from opposition to abortion to gay marriage. But the fact that 8 in 10 voters who cited moral values as most important cast their ballots for Bush is a strong indicator of the issues respondents who selected this option had in mind. To use another code phrase, quite likely they are the same "traditional values" Bush has advocated as president.

In September, Gallup's annual poll on governance* asked Americans whether they felt the government should promote traditional values in society, or not favor any particular set of values. This year's results show that a slim majority of Americans, 54%, feel the government should promote traditional values, while a substantial minority, 41%, say the government should favor no particular set of values.

Political Ideology

Political ideology is perhaps the best predictor of people's views about the relationship between government and values. Three-quarters of self-described conservatives (74%) think the government should promote traditional values, up from 67% who said so in September 2003. Nearly half of political moderates (48%) say government should promote traditional values in society, down from 54% in last year's survey. Just 23% of liberals think government should endorse traditional values, down from 35% from last year.

One respondent to this poll, a politically moderate retired police officer from California -- says government should not promote any one set of values. "I'm against government pushing a religious agenda," he says. But he does wish the government would promote one traditional value -- honesty. "They should just follow the Golden Rule -- do unto others as you would have others do unto you."

Another survey respondent's views were at the other end of the spectrum. A 38-year-old police officer from New York, who identifies himself as conservative, believes the government should promote traditional values. "For instance, I'm a strong supporter of a constitutional amendment to define marriage as the legal union between one man and one woman," he says. "I am also in favor of government providing both programs and tax incentives to promote marriage and help families stay together." 

Church Attendance

Although religiosity and ideology have close ties, independent of ideology, church attendance is also an excellent predictor of one's general outlook on government's role with values. The majority of regular churchgoers in the United States believe that the government should promote traditional values. Seventy-one percent of Americans who attend religious services on a weekly basis are in favor of government-backed traditional values. Forty percent of those who seldom or never attend church say the government should favor traditional values. 

What Are "Traditional Values," Anyway?

The phrase "traditional values" means different things to different people. To many, the phrase is synonymous with conservative religious views on "hot button" issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and stem-cell research.

In explaining her belief that government should not favor any set of values, a 45-year-old news director from Colorado -- a liberal Democrat who never attends church --sees things exactly that way. "Abortion is a personal choice and the government should have nothing to do with it," she says.

Others define traditional values more broadly. "To me, traditional values are trustworthiness, integrity, and honor," says a 33-year-old therapist from Texas. "The government needs to honor human life by making a priority of family time, healthcare, and quality daycare. They need to value families." 

Though Bush was the preferred candidate among those who cited moral values as their top consideration at the polls last week, Bush still presides over a nation that is sharply divided on some of the specific moral issues likely to come up in his second term -- particularly on abortion and stem cell research. Clearly, for the time being the national conversation about how much of a mandate Bush has on these will continue to be heated.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,022 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Sept. 13-15, 2004. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.
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