As the story of 2004’s historic election is written, one key question will be answered – What was the most significant event of the campaign? If Senator Kerry had won, pundits would be talking about his debate performance or the alleged loss of tons of explosives in Iraq. President Bush’s victory will lead to other answers, such as the Osama Bin Laden tape or the successful labeling of Kerry as a “flip-flopper.” But ultimately, these are not the things on which the election turned.
Exit polls revealed that the issues on the minds of voters included the big three – the War on Terrorism, the War in Iraq, and the economy. But these three were joined, and even surpassed, by a fourth unexpected concern – moral values. More voters (22%) were motivated by their religious and cultural convictions than any thing else. Of those who voted based on moral values, 78% cast their ballot for President Bush.
What do these voters mean by “moral values”? As an evangelical Christian, I think I know. There are three issues on the minds of values-driven voters:
- “Gay Marriage” – Conservatives and evangelicals vehemently want the traditional definition of marriage to stay in tact. The huge success of such ballot initiatives in eleven states only helped to pad the President’s numbers.
- Abortion – Though it is a divisive issue, if conservative Christians are going to be single-issue voters, the single issue they are going to vote on is the sanctity of human life. This issue was highlighted in the campaign by the debate over embryonic stem cell research.
- Freedom of Religious Expression – Religious conservatives believe that they are under assault in America from those who would want to restrict religious references in schools, courthouses, and the public square.
What do these moral values issues have in common? Each of them is inseparably linked to the judicial system. Gay “marriage” is an issue because activist judges have allowed it. Abortion decisions are always litigated, especially in 2004 when many bans on partial birth abortion were overturned by courts. And, it is the rulings of judges that have brought issues like the inclusion of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance to the forefront of the cultural landscape.
Against this backdrop, when in the final week of the 2004 campaign it was announced that US Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist was battling cancer, conservative Christian voters galvanized with an undeniable spirit to vote for President Bush. The need to preserve the Supreme Court with, as President Bush calls them, “strict constructionists” trumped any reservations voters on the religious right felt toward the President. In their mind, the only way to win the cultural clash in America is to fill the courts with traditionally-minded Constitution literalists.
I am not suggesting that these conservative Christians would not have voted for the President otherwise, but the announcement of the Chief Justice’s illness provided the final and most compelling motivation that enabled them to brave long lines and bad weather to vote with intensity. To use a political cliché, this announcement solidified the President’s base. Therefore, tragically, the most important event of the 2004 campaign was the untimely and unfortunate health decline of Chief Justice Rehnquist.