I have always been amazed that the liberal media is willing to let stand the right’s equation between “religious voters,” “values voters,” and opposition to gay marriage, abortion, and stem cell research. There is no necessary relation between being religious, having values, or opposition to stem cell research or gay marriage, in my view. That having been said, the current obsession with homosexuality on the part of the Religious Right would seem to assure it a political relevance for the Republican Party for some time. ~Heather Mac Donald

This isn’t all that amazing when you think about it.  The media indulge this conceit, to the extent that they do, for two main reasons.  The first is that specifically tying “religious voters” to abortion, gay marriage and stem-cell research helps to confirm their image of these “religious voters” as intolerant, meddlesome, fanatical and potentially dangerous.  By setting things up this way, they have done religious conservatives no favours in the PR battle.  The message that comes across–the message they make sure comes across–is: “These people want to tell you what you can do with your own body and would rather see you die in agony than allow science to save you.”  This is tendentious and wrong in many ways, but that is why the media have been only too glad to emphasise these aspects of religious conservatism.  These aspects obviously exist and are important to religious conservatives, but by making these the end-all and be-all of what the rest of the public knows about “religious voters” the media succeed in making “religious voters” and their views appear very unattractive to “moderates” and independents.  In this way, they make the pro-life view into a test of religious fundamentalism: if you don’t want to be considered a fundamentalist, don’t oppose abortion.  Likewise, according to this narrative, if you don’t want to oppress people, don’t oppose gay marriage; if you don’t want to inflict endless suffering on the sick and dying, don’t oppose any kind of stem-cell research.  Of course, religious conservatives make up most of the people who oppose these things and they certainly make up a large proportion of the activists against all of them, so it is not entirely a media creation.  However, no one has suggested that it is impossible to oppose these things without being religious. 

The second–this is where the ”values” scam comes in–is that to call them “values voters” functions a way of avoiding any talk of morality or virtue as such.  Instead of, say, ”culture war,” which implied that one side was fighting for our culture and the other was fighting against it (and this had obvious negative political implications for the latter group), talking about “values” helps make the issues in question less powerful and can make the policy implications of the strength of a “values voter” bloc far more obscure.   To refer to someone as a “values voter” is actually not a move that invests them with some special claim to being concerned with living well or doing the right thing and so on.  This move undermines any strong claims about serious moral questions by making support for the virtues and opposition to vices into interchangeable, malleable preferences (”values”) rather than commitments to moral truth.  In end, speaking of them as “values voters” is much less favourable than referring to them as cultural or religious or socially conservative voters, since all of these other terms can sound appealing to many people.  In the end, calling them values voters is a way of lumping together a whole class of people who are voting on a number of disparate cultural concerns and putting them under a bland, meaningless label.  The phrase functions as a way of watering down the significance of these voters and effectively reducing their power by diluting or even negating what it is they stand for.  Voting against moral and cultural decline, for example, which might be conveyed by the label cultural conservative, sends one message and carries more weight, while voting for “values” carries as much weight in its effect on the political debate as going to a clearance sale.  Naturally, secular conservatives such as George Will and now Heather Mac Donald take offense that they have been excluded, so to speak, from the camp of “values voters,” not seeing that the entire “values voter” conceit is a way to reduce and weaken the impact of religious conservatism on the public debate.  They should instead welcome the empty-headed “values” talk, since it helps to reduce religious conservative views on so many questions of social policy to just so many preferences and/or prejudices.  It tacitly assumes that the people who “value” life and marriage are basically sentimental about what they “value” and lack good arguments for their preferences or it can imply that they devalue other people’s rights.  Either way, it is a way of subtly undermining religious conservatives.  It is not a compliment, and the possession of this label is not something that other people should envy.