New York Family values, traditional values and now, "moral values." Most American adults would say they have them, and yet the phrase is the focus of an ideological tug-of-war heightened by President Bush's re-election, with conservatives declaring principal ownership and liberals scrambling to challenge them.
"We need to work really hard at reclaiming some language," said the Rev. Robert Edgar, general secretary of the liberal-leaning National Council of Churches.
"The religious right has successfully gotten out there shaping personal piety issues -- civil unions, abortion -- as almost the total content of 'moral values,"' Edgar said. "And yet you can't read the Old Testament without knowing God was concerned about the environment, war and peace, poverty. God doesn't want 45 million Americans without health care."
Many of the advocacy groups that helped mobilize conservative voters for Bush concentrate on a narrow range of issues -- notably opposing abortion and gay rights. Conservative leaders say these were the main issues on voters' minds when many, in exit polls, designated unspecified "moral values" as their foremost Election Day priority.
"Those who view the appeal to 'moral values' as mere political manipulation and ideological posturing have a basic misunderstanding of people of faith," said Janice Shaw Crouse of the conservative Concerned Women for America. "The 'moral values' that were a top priority in this election -- abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, same-sex unions -- are rooted in deep religious beliefs."
Such statements of moral grounding have frustrated Democratic-leaning activists -- in past campaigns and particularly this year. They question the vagueness of the "moral values" exit poll question and contend that their own political priorities, such as fighting poverty and discrimination, have moral weight and popular support.
Proponents of same-sex unions, for example, believe it is moral to afford partnership rights to two men or two women who have committed themselves to each other and, in many cases, are raising children.
"We have a thing or two to say about the 'moral values' involved with permitting a couple who wish to build a life together to enjoy full legal standing as a family," said Ron Schlittler, director of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
Similarly, abortion-rights advocates believe it is moral to allow the option of abortion to a poor, newly pregnant woman, rather than compel her to bear a child she didn't plan for and cannot afford to raise.
Asked whether their rivals on the left indeed held viable moral values, several conservatives replied with a qualified "yes," suggesting the liberals' social concerns were valid but not as important as opposition to abortion or same-sex marriage.
"We believe in biblical principles; I'm sure they believe in biblical principles," said Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition of America. "But I don't understand how they can defend abortion and homosexuality. That's wrong."
Stark lines drawn
Some put the issue even more starkly.
"There is no reconciliation between good and evil," wrote Mary Ann Kreitzer of Les Femmes, an organization of conservative Roman Catholic women. "Voters rejected the party of gay activists, radical feminists, the Hollywood elite, pornographers, death-peddlers, anti-Christian bigots and apostate Catholics."
For some moderates, the values debate is less simple -- they may oppose abortion and gay marriage yet share liberals' view on other issues.
Mike Allen of Catholic Charities of Trenton, which serves the needy in southern New Jersey, said his organization's mission entails seeking "a more just and compassionate society" on for the disadvantaged.
Regarding partisan promotion of "moral values," Allen said, "Oversimplifying is a technique that seems to win elections."
A future battleground in the values tug-of-war will be for black and Hispanic support. Some conservatives believe wariness of gay marriage will enable Republicans to steadily win more of their votes.
However, the Rev. Stephen Bouman, a New York-based bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, worries that conservative Christians' definition of "moral values" may be too narrow to accommodate those of different faiths and backgrounds, including new immigrants.
"One thing Jesus was absolutely clear about was helping the poor, and the welcoming of strangers," Bouman said. "Maybe this election was a wake-up call to have a serious conversation about what morality means, to look at what sort of country we're becoming."