Inspired by an interview on a recent episode of Freethought Radio, I want to talk about a term that greatly annoys me: “values voters“. This term is used by American religious conservatives to describe themselves, and all too often, we see the media playing along and using it to describe this voting bloc as well.
“Values voters” is widely understood to refer to the heavily religious Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, who reliably vote Republican. This group generally supports the war in Iraq, opposes social welfare programs, advocates government support of religion and abstinence-only education in public schools, and favors outlawing abortion, gay adoption, and gay marriage. It’s a term invented by conservative religious strategists to frame the issue in a way favorable to their side, similar to the way Republican politicians speak of the “death tax” rather than the “estate tax” (the latter term is far more accurate, since this is not a tax levied on all people at death, but only on multimillion-dollar estates).
I find this term to be incredibly arrogant, insofar as it implies that the religious right is the only group that has values which guide its decisions in the voting booth. This is not just false, it’s absurd. Does the religious right have a monopoly on “values”? Of course not. Every political faction has a set of values which guide its decisions and policy stances. I value equality under the law for all people, sustainable use of the environment, showing compassion for the needy, defending science and reason, and keeping church and state separate. I choose candidates to vote for based on these values. Why am I not a “values voter”?
Even more common among religious conservatives, and even more arrogant and offensive, are the terms “pro-life” and “pro-family”. These terms signify opposition to legal abortion and opposition to gay marriage, respectively. But here, too, the religious right has taken positive terms of general applicability and tried to claim exclusive ownership of them by associating them solely with their political positions.
Of course, the progressive side does this too, such as with “pro-choice”. Arguably, however, in this case the term is more accurate, because it does delineate a clear difference between the two sides. When it comes to abortion, some people are pro-choice; they believe that whether to have an abortion or not should be the choice of the woman. Other people are not pro-choice; they believe that the woman should not be permitted to choose.
When it comes to “pro-life”, however, the distinction is less clear. Obviously, we who support abortion rights are not opposed to life. Life is a wonderful thing! When a child is wanted, and the parents are capable and prepared, a birth is a joyous event that brings love and hope into a household. No one is disagreeing with that point. The only point of difference is whether a woman who sought to avoid pregnancy, but became pregnant anyway through accident or rape, should be forced to carry that pregnancy to term against her will. It’s in that sad circumstance that we believe the bodily autonomy of the woman must be the overriding concern. Some countries, such as El Salvador, ban abortion even if the fetus has no chance of survival and the mother’s life is gravely endangered by continued pregnancy (such as in an ectopic pregnancy). In that horrible scenario, we might wonder, who is really “pro-life”?
Consider the many U.S. states that have unconditionally banned gay people from acting as foster parents or adoptive parents, regardless of their qualifications or their ability to provide a stable, loving home environment. Evidently these anti-family crusaders would rather children have no home at all than that they have a home with a gay parent. Some religious conservatives, even more flagrant in their hateful prejudice, have proposed laws that would prevent gay people even from adopting children that were related to them. In one instance, the religious right proposed a law that would break up preexisting adoptions by gay parents that were performed legally in another state if the parents traveled through the state in question with their child.
The situation is the same with gay marriage. Members of the religious right want to deny gay people one of the most basic rights of all: the right of two people in love to have that relationship recognized and spend their lives together, with the same benefits we grant to heterosexual couples. The many state constitutional amendments banning gay marriage are bad enough, but this trend of bigotry goes beyond that. In many states, the religious right has worked to pass laws that forbid even private employers from offering domestic partner benefits to gay couples. It is truly evil for them to attempt to force all members of society to perpetuate their loathsome bigotry, even those who otherwise would not.
It’s a vile lie for people who support such policies as this to call themselves “pro-family”. The real pro-family groups are those who support all families, even those that do not fit the traditional model. People who try to wield the power of the state to break up and discriminate against certain kinds of families have no right to make such a claim.
As for me, I am both pro-life and pro-family. I think both life and families are good things that society should commit to supporting and encouraging. What I do not believe is that I have a license to force others to conform to my opinions or take away their autonomy so they don’t do anything I disapprove of. This dictatorial attitude, more than anything else, is what guides the religious right, and the terms we use to describe them should reflect that truth.