Thursday, May 18, 2006

George Will Missing the Point on "Values Voters"

George Will uses his column in today's Washington Post to attack what are now being termed "values voters," accusing them of arrogance for assuming that they are the only ones who vote according to their values. While social conservatives, like every other subset of political activists, may include some who are guilty of arrogance, Will's column misses the point. Social conservatives who talk of themselves as "values voters," and media that repeat that descriptive phrase, are simply guilty of semantic sloppiness.

The term "values voters" refers to social conservatives who have for two decades emphasized what they have termed "family values." There have always been problems with that latter phrase, which ironically should have concerned the conservatives who were using it. First, the term "value," as Will indicates in his column, really doesn't speak of any particular set of values at all. It only speaks to whatever a particular group happens to value. Thus, if some voters value the concept of gay marriage, they may vote consistent with their own family value. The second point derives from the first and is more ironic. Though social conservatives stand very much against the notion of moral relativism and insist on a belief in universal morality applicable to all people at all times, they have adopted "values" language that is by definition relativistic. Instead of speaking of good and evil or right and wrong, these supposed articulators of moral truth have reduced themselves to advocating only competing sets of values. The term "Christian values" is almost an oxymoron, not because there are no Christian values, but because Christians believe that morality is based on the character and commands of the Lord of all. By the way, it should go without saying, but I'll anticipate the argument anyway, a belief that Christian morality applies to all does NOT mean that believers should try to enforce such morality on all people since, as Baptist Roger Williams famously pointed out three centuries ago, faith is a gift of God that cannot be coerced. Social conservatives have been negligent by not developing a philosophy as to what differentiates the morality to be civicly necessary from that which should be insisted upon for church members.

George Will, who himself takes positions congruent with those of social conservatives on many issues, including abortion, has decided that the overall prevalence of those conservatives in the Republican Party poses an electoral threat to it. He is mistaken in that regard. However, the movement does need leadership with the intellectual capacity for refining its positions if it is ever effectively to promote its agenda to the public at large.

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