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Marie O'Connor, a conservative Catholic from Amherst, relied on her moral values -- especially her opposition to abortion -- when voting for President Bush earlier this month.

Lucinda M. Finley's pro-choice values translate into a deep distrust of the president -- leading the University at Buffalo law professor to vote for John F. Kerry.

And attorney Barbra A. Kavanaugh's moral values prompted her to travel from Buffalo to Oregon this election season to rally support against a referendum banning same-sex marriage.

Wide-ranging views, to be sure. But when these local residents and four others with similarly deep but differing moral convictions discussed the election a few days ago at a round table session convened by The Buffalo News, they all discovered one piece of common ground.

The 2004 election may have somehow defined values as opposing abortion and gay marriage, they said, but one's own moral sense -- no matter how disparate -- carries immense weight in voting.

While neither end of the belief spectrum seems ready to change, there is a willingness to listen to the opposing view. Somewhere in that, it seems, is room for common ground.

"I think we do have very common values," said Kavanaugh, "values of family, caring for children, participating in the community in meaningful ways. I don't think the rock-bottom values are all that different."

"Barbra's values are obviously different from mine; they guided her to leave New York State and go all the way to Oregon to fight for what she believes," said the Rev. William Gillison, pastor of Mount Olive Baptist Church in Buffalo. "In that sense, we're both fighting for what we believe."

"Moral values" exploded into the national dialogue after exit polls showed the issue mattered most when voting for president on Nov. 2, providing Bush's margin of victory for a second term in the White House.

O'Connor, a longtime right-to-life activist with a strong allegiance to Catholic doctrine, ranks abortion before any other issue. Gillison, meanwhile, has preached against same-sex marriage from the Mount Olive pulpit. And the Rev. Karl Eastlack, pastor of Eastern Hills Wesleyan Church in Clarence, called the outcome a "push-back election" against extreme developments, like same-sex marriage.

"I take considerable exception to the notion that this was a white, angry Christian vote. This was a push-back vote with people," said Eastlack. "There is tolerance, but there are some boundaries we need to keep."

Different values

Finley, on the other hand, said values influenced her vote even if they are at odds with the president's. Equality, tolerance and respect for family top her list, she said, while what she called the lack of Bush's honesty and integrity in leading the nation to war turned her toward Kerry.

"I felt the current administration may rank as the most profoundly immoral in the history of our country," she said.

A recent Pew Research Center poll showed more than four in 10 voters surveyed defined moral values in relation to hot-button social issues, such as abortion, gay marriage or stem-cell research. But nearly a quarter cited moral values as a candidate's personal characteristics. Some mentioned Christianity, God or the Bible.

The opportunity to find common ground could be missed if moral values are defined narrowly and in a partisan way, said the Rev. Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners, a progressive evangelical magazine based in Washington.

"What we dare not do is have a shouting match -- our values vs. their values, my values vs. your values," Wallis said. "It may be out of this we can find a new common ground. Some of the issues around greed and materialism and poverty could be part of that new common ground."

Historically, the nation's moral divisions aren't all that different from past elections, except this time an exit poll was taken, Finley said.

The Pew poll, in fact, found that what mattered most to voters partly depended on how this question was asked.

When Pew asked 1,209 voters that question, and gave them a list of seven choices, 27 percent chose moral values. But when no choices were given, and the question of what matters most was left open-ended, only 14 percent chose moral values.

Not every expert dismisses the power of "moral values" in the just-completed election.

Mark R. Silk, director of the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., argues that while the term has just now gained public shorthand status, it still served as the basis for a massive get-out-the-vote effort by Southern Baptists.

"If everybody voted their values, it would have been a 50-50 split," he said. "The story about these polls is that a large majority of people who chose moral values think in terms of Republican moral values."

'Motivated by fear'

And that idea remains a source of contention for panel member Lynn S. Edelman, who is Kavanaugh's partner. Edelman viewed the election as "motivated by fear," and recalled debates over whether African-Americans should vote or schools should be segregated.

"I see fear of opening a door to the unknown," said Edelman. "They were trying to stop what in this country we strive to be -- a more inclusive nation."

While it was obvious the panel registered widely different views on topics like gay marriage, the participants found themselves agreeing on some areas.

Kavanaugh, an attorney and onetime Common Council member, said society needs to recognize the reality of modern families. She and Edelman, also an attorney, are raising two boys. The law provides no rights for either partner to inherit the other's property, receive the other's pension, or visit her partner in the hospital, Kavanaugh said.

"Why can't the state provide a mechanism for this reality, which is 20 years together and two kids?" she asked. "I think the state has an interest in supporting that kind of family, and Lynn and I are that kind of family."

Though he did not endorse the concept, Eastlack acknowledged that the country may be heading toward civil unions for gay couples. And while he finds common ground with Kavanaugh and Edelman in acknowledging the reality of their family, he finds no wave of support for redefining the institution of marriage.

"There are reality families, but that does not mean the standard has to be redefined for what those families are," he said.

'Civil unions will come'

O'Connor said she recognizes the dilemma of families such as the one headed by Kavanaugh and Edelman.

"I think civil unions will come, though I'm not saying I support it," she said. "But in order to move your cause along, marriage should be taken out of the discussion -- unless we redefine marriage."

Opinions can always change even on such controversial issues, said Jeremy Zellner, a Buffalo State College student who campaigned for Kerry.

"I have changed my view of the death penalty through education," he said. "Now I believe it is wrong."

The question now is, where does the nation go from here? How does it begin to bridge its divide?

"We will reach out to religious conservative colleagues," said Wallis, the magazine editor. "The question remains: will the Bush administration reach out to diverse religious voices across the spectrum -- even (those) who voted against him. Or will he just reach out to his own base?"

And while The News panel agreed small steps may lead to some common ground, the divisions such emotional issues generate may never arrive at compromise because life and death are inherently part of topics like abortion.

Same-sex marriage? Maybe.

"I think people of good will would say they're not OK about gay and lesbian folks raising kids, but to the extent they have kids, they should be protected," Kavanaugh said. "I think we can break it down to that small a part and get agreement."

Eastlack did not challenge her premise. But he also said it may be a long way off. "That would take a magnanimous majority," he said.


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