04/13/2011 04:37 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2011

A New Values Debate For 2012

Conventional wisdom about faith and politics usually (and falsely) divides "values voters" motivated by opposition to abortion and gay marriage from an electorate focused on kitchen-table issues like jobs and taxes. This misleading script became a major media story after the 2004 presidential election when a flawed exit poll question separated "moral values" from broader concerns about the Iraq war, the economy, education and health care. This faulty premise assumed that Americans who care about economic fairness, immigration reform and other moral issues at the heart of their religious traditions left their faith and values outside the voting booth.

This old narrative has dramatically changed since 2004, as progressive and moderate religious leaders and people of faith challenge the myth that conservative Republicans have a monopoly on our nation's moral agenda, and that agenda is limited to abortion and gay rights issues. As the 2012 presidential election season begins, faith leaders are speaking out against budget cuts that hurt the most vulnerable, condemning Islamophobia that stains our highest ideals, standing up for workers' rights and defending the health care reform law from partisan attacks.

In fact, a recent poll shows that Catholics and evangelicals in Ohio -- a key swing state -- morally oppose Republican economic policies that hurt working families. Sponsored by Faith in Public Life, the poll of 2,000 Ohio registered voters found that 57% of Catholic and 59% of evangelical/born-again voters think restricting collective bargaining is wrong. Sixty-one percent of Catholics and 63% of evangelical/born-again Christians also believe that Gov. John Kasich's approach to addressing the state's budget challenges -- which includes cuts to services such as education and health care -- is unfair. These voters are speaking up. Over 1,000 people of faith in Ohio signed petitions that local clergy leaders have delivered to the State House.

Newt Gingrich, a likely presidential candidate who warned voters about a "secular-socialist agenda" at the Conservative Principles Conference in Iowa recently, will grab headlines with his reckless rhetoric. Others will continue to outdo each other by exploiting ungrounded fears of Sharia law. But I believe many voters will see through sensationalism and support leaders who speak to the authentic values of their faith traditions rather than using religion as a weapon to divide and distract us from serving the common good.

So as campaigns heat up in the year ahead, which candidates will recognize the economy is a moral issue? Who will ask why economic inequality has reached Depression-era levels? Who will stand up for families, good jobs and workers' rights as these priorities are threatened? Values voters will be listening closely for answers.