Values and Voting


September 3, 2016 by Jean

imageI’ve been thinking about values and politics ever since a fractious online exchange with a high school classmate about the current political campaign led me to conclude that we were talking past one another because we came to the discussion with different values. It wasn’t just that we disagreed about facts or the substance of issues; we disagreed about which facts and issues were important.

Social conservatives in the United State sometime describe themselves as “values voters,” and the conservative Family Research Council hosts a “Values Voter Summit” each year in Washington, D.C.  Although these social conservatives have claimed the phrase “values voter” to refer to a particular set of values, I think that most voters are values voters. Which issues ignite voters and which candidates they support depend on the values they hold.

Values are not the same thing as attitudes or beliefs. Values are the criteria we use to evaluate what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s good and what’s bad, what’s worthy and what’s unworthy, what’s important and what’s trivial. Early in my teaching career, I taught a seminar for first year students that focused on value tensions in American culture and on how those tensions frame debates about social and political issues. Those value tensions include individual-community, freedom-equality, and (the one embodied in the motto E pluribus unum) diversity-unity. Most of us value all of these things to some degree, but we differ in which way we lean when they come into conflict.

National Public Radio recently aired a series by religion reporter Tom Gjelten on the religious upbringing of the two major party candidates and how their values and policy choices are informed by those backgrounds. Clinton, he notes, was raised in a Methodist church with a strong “social gospel” tradition. The Christian social gospel tradition emphasizes the parts of the gospel that exhort love of others and particularly care for the less fortunate. Familiar social gospel passages include the Sermon on the Mount and the Eight Beatitudes, the parable of the good Samaritan, and the incident where Jesus stops a stoning by suggesting “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

I am very familiar with the social gospel tradition because it was emphasized in my own upbringing. I was not familiar, however, with the “prosperity gospel” tradition, which is where Gjelten locates Donald Trump’s religious upbringing (in a Christian church pastored by Norman Vincent Peale). The prosperity gospel focuses on a person’s individual relationship with God. A strong personal relationship with God empowers a person, and that power will in turn lead to success. Success, including material wealth, is a reward bestowed on the individual by God, a sign of God’s favor. This sounds to me like an updated version of the religious beliefs analyzed by the German sociologist, Max Weber, at the turn of the 20th century in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber argued that the Calvinist Protestant tradition of Northern Europe and America’s Puritan founders created a particularly hospitable environment for the development of capitalism. At the core of the Calvinist faith tradition was a belief in predestination, the idea that individuals were already destined for either salvation or damnation at their birth. Individuals could not do anything (e.g., good works) to increase their chance of salvation; however, they were instructed to work hard, and success as a result of hard work was regarded as a sign of God’s favor. At the same time, though, Calvinism was ascetic; one should live simply, and it was sinful to indulge in luxuries. What, then, should one do with the economic proceeds of worldly success? They could not be consumed as luxuries, and there was no point in giving them away to charity. (Good works could not lead to salvation, and giving to the poor would simply lead them away from the path of hard work.) The answer was to invest in business. The prosperity gospel retains the Calvinist idea that worldly success is a sign of God’s favor, but it also eliminates the injunction to live simply. If living in luxury is now acceptable, however, believers in the prosperity gospel are also encouraged to give to charity.

These two versions of Christianity shape the values of their adherents. The social gospel fosters a “social justice” value orientation and the use of public service and government action to foster social justice. The Progressive Movement that flourished in the United States in the early 20th century was explicitly rooted in the social gospel. In terms of the value tensions in American culture, those with a social justice orientation tend to favor community action and collective solutions over individual ones. They believe government can and should act on behalf of the community, and they tend to value work in government. A social justice value orientation often also leads to greater focus on equality than on individual freedoms; collective action to promote equality is seen as enhancing the rights of the disadvantaged. The emphasis on community in the social justice value orientation leads to an expansive, inclusive sense of who makes up the “community” and to a priority on diversity over unity. It is not unusual for social justice voters to have a sense of community that transcends national boundaries, and they are wary of nationalism and beliefs in American superiority that may turn into ethnocentrism or xenophobia.

The prosperity gospel seems to emphasize the other side of each of these value tensions. Given the prosperity gospel’s focus on the individual’s relationship with God, it is not surprising that the resulting value orientation prioritizes the individual over community. In this worldview, government and those who make a career of governing (politicians and civil servants) are suspect, seen as a threat to individual liberties rather than as a means of collective action. Government should be limited and solutions to social problems sought in individual or private sector action. The preference for freedom over equality seems to be an extension of this value on the individual. Moreover, since prosperity is a sign of God’s favor, inequality is necessary at the same time that the poor are suspected of moral inferiority. I am particularly intrigued by the prioritizing of unity over diversity among those with a prosperity gospel orientation. In this era of globalization, has the value on the individual been extended to the nation? Advocates of the prosperity gospel seem particularly concerned with national and cultural unity. America’s prosperity as a nation, like individual prosperity, is seen as a sign of God’s favor. Expressions of nationalism and patriotism (which are often seen as the same thing) are particularly valued. Citizens who criticize the United States or its actions are regarded as unpatriotic and lacking love for their country. Symbolic expressions of national unity (honoring the American flag, singing the national anthem, speaking English) are highly valorized, and immigrants are often regarded as a threat to unity.

The current election highlights these value tensions and the very different ways that those with different value orientations understand political priorities. Our core values are deeply held and not subject to change through debate, which makes discussion of political issues or positions tied to our values particularly fraught. One “solution” is to limit our political conversations to those who share our value orientation. But this creates the increasingly familiar political polarization that makes it more and more difficult to find any common ground.

12 thoughts on “Values and Voting

  1. Jean R. says:

    This was certainly an interesting and thought-provoking comparison of our two candidates. It all fits together perfectly…though I didn’t realize that our male candidate actually has/had a close affiliation with any church. Social tensions are so high right now I can’t wait for this election to be over. Although my house cleaner, a Trump fan, says it won’t settle anything because if he doesn’t win there is going to be an armed revolution. I worry about what has become of our educational system that has caused so many people to look at the same set of facts and evaluate them completely opposite.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, Norman Vincent Peale, the pastor of the church Trump’s family belonged to when he was a teenager, was the author of The Power of Positive Thinking, which argued that you can become powerful and successful by believing in yourself. I think we can see the influence of this philosophy in Donald Trump’s braggadocio.

  2. Sue McPhee says:

    Thank you for this, Jean. This took a lot of thought and effort on your part and I appreciate learning some facts I was not aware of. I am hoping this may help me “do my part” on election day, whatever that becomes.

  3. Diana Studer says:

    How did Christianity – if you have 2 coats give one to the poor – become the religion of capitalism? Who has only two coats? (Away from Switzerland I am down to one)

    You have given me an answer to a question that has bothered me for years.

    ‘The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate’ – we no longer sing that verse.

    • Jean says:

      Diana, Max Weber’s analysis of how a Calvinist version of Christianity became the religion of capitalism is fascinating. It is very different from the Social Gospel version of Christianity, which focuses on doing good for others (if you have two coats, give one to the poor).

  4. Mary says:

    Excellent and inciteful article…more people should read this to really understand the difference. Thank you

    • Jean says:

      Mary, Thanks for the positive response. Writing this helped me to think these issues through, so it pleases me if reading my thoughts helps others to make some sense of this strange election.

  5. Dr Sock says:

    Thank-you for this thoughtful analysis. Looking at the presidential race from outside of the country (Canada), the political situation in the USA seems, frankly, bizarre, and I worry about the future of your country and the world. Your analysis has helped me to recognize some of the factors in the current polarization. One way forward is to analyze and understand the source of the differences, as you have, and another is to seek common ground, whatever that might be.


    • Jean says:

      Jude, The current political situation in the US seems pretty bizarre from this side of the border, too! Understanding the value tensions in American culture provides some level of explanation, but it doesn’t explain why we focus more on our value conflicts than on the commonalities. There are some fascinating analyses of why our politics have become so polarized, including the unintended consequence of changes that were intended to make our system more democratic (e.g., choosing candidates through primaries rather than in smoke-filled rooms).

  6. Stacy Moore says:

    Thank you for this clear analysis, Jean. I have been flummoxed in Facebook interactions with old friends by exactly that incapacity to connect or to see the same information in the same way. Even our definition of truth seems to be different. Your approach makes so much sense—we really can’t change those core values without an upheaval that changes our identity, so debate just isn’t going to cut it. But I do wish we could collectively remember how to disagree civilly!

    • Jean says:

      Stacy, I’m trying to figure out how to emphasize the fact that, most of the time, we all value individual rights and community efforts, freedom and equality, unity and diversity, that our differences are at the margins. It seems to me, for example, that we all agree that some things that need to get done require community effort and where we differ is when the government is the best way to take community action (those on the political right seem to emphasize this only for military action) and when voluntary (e.g., GoFundMe), non-profit, or profit-making organizations are a better choice. The hardest value tension in the current political climate seems to be unity-diversity. Right now, each emphasis seems like such a threat to the other side of the value tension that it’s hard to remember that we generally value both these things.

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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