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My Take: Welcome back, culture wars (and Rick Santorum)
Opponents of Proposition 8, California's anti-gay marriage bill, outside the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday.
February 8th, 2012
11:09 AM ET

My Take: Welcome back, culture wars (and Rick Santorum)

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

So much for the cease-fire in the culture wars.

With the rise of the tax-focused tea party, the slump into recession and the emergence of Occupy Wall Street, U.S. politics was supposed to turn to economic matters. But recent developments on the Holy Trinity of bedroom issues — gay marriage, abortion and contraception — demonstrate that the culture wars are alive and well and (among other things) propelling Rick Santorum to a clean sweep on Tuesday in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado.

Last month, the Obama administration announced a new rule requiring that health insurance plans offer birth control to women for free. This rule specifically exempts, on religious liberty grounds, Catholic churches, but it does not exempt Catholic-affiliated institutions such as universities, hospitals and charities.

In recent days, the Obama administration has been pummeled in the press by Catholic leaders and Republican presidential candidates for purportedly sacrificing religious liberty at the altar of its health plan. On Tuesday, Romney called the policy an "assault on religion."  Earlier, Bishop of Phoenix Thomas Olmsted sent a letter to his flock stating, "We cannot — we will not — comply with this unjust law."

The abortion fight has also been running hotter, with the Komen Foundation cutting funding for breast cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood, only to reverse course a few days later under tremendous pressure from supporters of abortion rights.

Then comes the federal appeals court in San Francisco, which by a 2-1 vote overturned on Tuesday a California referendum banning same-sex marriage approved in 2008. According to this three-judge panel, Proposition 8 violated the 14th Amendment right to “equal protection” of California’s gay men and lesbians.

So once again U.S. politics has turned to sex, religion, privacy and conscience, and the culture warrior par excellence in the Republican field, Rick Santorum, is for the moment at least the latest new non-Romney thing.

One side (the left) speaks of rights: the rights of women to privacy and protective health care and the rights of men and women of all sexual orientations to choose whom they want to marry. The other side (the right) speaks of religious liberty and the downfall of a society so married to moral relativism that it can't even protect the unborn and a tradition as venerable as heterosexual matrimony.

David Axelrod, a key Obama political adviser, signaled Tuesday on television and radio that the Obama administration might be up for a compromise of some sort on the birth control issue, but none of these bedroom issues is going away, at least not until the 2012 presidential election is over.

But just how deeply ingrained are these divisions inside the American public? Not so deep, really.

In a 2006 book called, "Is There a Culture War?" James Davison Hunter and Alan Wolfe disagreed fiercely over the reach and power of the culture wars, but they agreed on one thing: These wars are fought by politicians and pundits far more than by ordinary Americans.

Take the question of birth control. While the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has raised a stink, most U.S. Catholics are actually in favor of the rule. So if the bishops want to go to war, they may well find they won’t have any foot soldiers.

According to a poll released Tuesday by the Public Religion Research Institute, 52% of Catholic voters support the Obama administration requirement that health plans cover prescription birth control without a co-pay. A similar poll, also released Tuesday, conducted by Public Policy Polling on behalf of Planned Parenthood, found that 53% of Catholic voters support the Obama administration on this question.

On gay marriage, polling also indicates that ordinary Americans are nowhere near as divided as are pundits and politicians. A Pew Research Center survey released Tuesday shows a remarkable convergence on this question between 1996, when the overwhelming majority (65%) of Americans opposed gay marriage, and 2011, when only a minority (46%) do.

But Pew did not just poll Americans as a whole. It broke down its results by generation, and here the findings are telling. While only 37% of baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) support gay marriage today, that figure rises to 64% among millennials (born after 1980).

Finally, on the abortion question, ordinary Americans seem far less agitated than their elected representatives. Over the past decade, poll after poll has shown that most Americans want abortion to be legal yet far less common. A 2011 Gallup poll is typical. Although Americans remain split between the "pro-life" and "pro-choice" labels, only 20% think abortion should be illegal in all circumstances, while 77% say it should be legal under all or some circumstances.

The takeaway? While the culture wars are, to Santorum's delight, with us at least until November, the cultural questions that beset us are likely to shift and shift quickly. Conservative Republicans can read polls as well as liberal Democrats can, and as the years go by, there will be less and less political hay to be made by opposing gay marriage or contraception.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Barack Obama • Bishops • Catholic Church • Church and state • Culture wars • Gay marriage • Mitt Romney • Politics • Rick Santorum • Same-sex marriage • Sex • United States

soundoff (738 Responses)
  1. Truthship

    Not so fast...........................
    Scalia, himself a devout and very conservative Catholic, wrote in a majority decision for Supreme Court, 1982 Employment Division v. Smith

    “When followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes that are binding on others in that activity. We have never held that an individual’s religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the State is free to regulate. On the contrary, the record of more than a century of our free exercise jurisprudence contradicts that proposition.” Anthony Scalia

    February 17, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  2. SuZieCoyote

    Remember, the Catholic church spent a very long time arguing over whether women were even human and had souls. They forbade pain relief during childbirth because the said the bible required women to give birth in pain. They have a long history (by their own admission!) of marginalizing women, something they say they are sorry for doing, yet show no signs of changing. Fundamentalist protestants are no much better, they just don't have the refinement of repression that history brings. They have to borrow from the Catholics from time to time.....like now.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  3. SlayFalseGod

    One of the Commandments is ' Thou Shall Not Steal " and yet the Pope sits on a pile of stolen treasures from around the World.
    I think you guys can look the other way on the contraception fiasco , too.

    February 15, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • Adam

      The pope is FAR from being a true believer. Deception lies around in every corner.

      February 17, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • jimtanker

      Thou shall not steal isn’t one of the ten commandments.

      February 17, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • Laer

      It's funny, me as an atheist pointing out something about the Ten Commandments.

      Exodues 20:15 – Thou shalt not steal
      Deuteronomy 5:19 – Neither shalt thou steal

      February 17, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
  4. SlayFalseGod

    They cant give a women contraceptive counseling but they have no problem sending Father Mulcahy to the front lines to give soldiers counseling.
    How many BILLIONS of people are already on this planet sucking it bone dry already ?
    Join the 21st century.

    February 15, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  5. Peter

    Sometimes I find it hard to believe that while you face so many real pressing problems, you Americans are still hopelessly bickering over two dudes tying the knot or women being able to end a pregnancy... In Canada, we've had these things sorted out for a long time now and believe it or not the sky hasn't fallen.

    February 15, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • JFKINAZ

      I completely agree, some Americans are so side tracked with cultural issues and what people are doing in their private lives when in reality, its no ones business! We have far bigger issues to tackle like the Deficit, Education, Social Security Solvency. And instead we get this circus side show from puritanical zealots. Time for a Common Sense Wake Up Call in this country.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • Matteo

      It's Canada.......so.........

      February 24, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
  6. Mr Everyman

    Numbers 5 in the Old testament records a jealousy ritual done by Jewish priests. The ritual is related to possible adultery but, rids the woman of unwanted offspring. The ritual was last done in 20 AD. After that it was done by physicians with very different procedures. The point is that abortions were Biblical. Jesus was Jewish and used a Jewish language, Aramaic or old Hebrew. His statements in Matthew 10:28 use the term soul, naphsha in Aramaic. This term is only used in relation to a person once they have been born. Naphsha or nefesh is never used to refer to a child in the womb. The concept of a soul joining the body was not in Jewish culture, Old or New Testament. The Catholic position is not Biblical.

    February 14, 2012 at 3:16 am |
    • Mr Everyman

      CORRECTION: The concept of the soul joining the body at birth was not in Jewish culture at the time of Jesus, Old or New Testament.

      February 14, 2012 at 3:21 am |
    • Mr Everyman

      CORRECT CORRECTION; The concept of a soul joining a body at conception was not in Jewish culture at the time of Jesus, Old or New Testament.

      February 14, 2012 at 3:33 am |
    • Mirosal

      gee it's just too bad that not a single book of the new testament was written in Aramaic. Already things were lost in translation.

      February 14, 2012 at 3:35 am |
    • Mr Everyman

      To Mirosal: There are now translations from Aramaic scripts into English. These scripts are claimed to be the basis for the Greek texts. To my knowledge the Greek for soul translates into Aramaic as naphsha or the Hebrew nefesh in any case.

      February 16, 2012 at 10:58 pm |
    • Spencer

      It was written in konie greek man. Think about it, you want to get this gopel to all the world, so write it in the language they they spoke....in greek, and not the super specialized one..the one spoken by everyday people. (except for the book of Hebrews, that book is something else, and maybe romans...maybe)

      February 17, 2012 at 12:24 am |
    • Mr Everyman

      The claim is that Matthew and the other Gospels were first written in the Aramaic language and translated into koine Greek. Copies of the Aramaic Bible were distributed in the direction of Syria, Persia and, India.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:03 am |
    • Mr Everyman

      The claim is that Matthew and the other Gospels were first written in the Aramaic language and translated into koine Greek. Copies of the Aramaic Bible were distributed in the direction of Syria, Persia and, India. Check AramaicBible.org

      February 17, 2012 at 1:09 am |
  7. Matteo

    If samge s...e...x marriage is ever approved (or should I say when??) then perhaps the true injustice can be corrected. Then perhaps single people will be able to marry themselves. What could be more same s...e...x than that??? If I love myself and am truly committed to myself then why not? If same person marriage were allowed think of the tax advantages? Also if I was able to marry myself then I might not feel so icky when I have s...e...x with myself. Think of the possibilities. The only problem I see with marrying myself is deciding if I should sign a pre-nup?????

    February 12, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
    • momoya

      You're already united with yourself as much as you can be. Don't be silly.

      –mom

      February 12, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
    • Matteo

      Silly? Who is being silly. And you are NOT my mom!!!!!!!

      February 13, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • Mirosal

      What would you do if you ever wanted a divorce? There's something to think about 🙂

      February 14, 2012 at 3:37 am |
    • Matteo

      My divorce lawyer would have two clients. What a quandry. I am thining Jackie Childs.......

      February 14, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
  8. syzito

    The death of America and personal freedoms is spelled......Democrats.

    February 12, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • Fallacy Spotting 101

      Post by 'syzito' is an instance of the false cause fallacy.

      http://www.iep.utm.edu/fallacy/#H6

      February 12, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • Matteo

      When everyone, experts inclulded, thought the world was flat it did not make the world flat. When everyone thinks the gay lifestyle is just an alternative lifestyle it still won't make it normal.

      February 12, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • Laer

      Matteo writes:

      "When everyone thinks the gay lifestyle is just an alternative lifestyle it still won't make it normal."

      When everyone thinks left-handedness is just an alternative handedness it still won't make it normal.
      When everyone thinks red headedness is just an alternative hair color it still won't make it normal.

      There you and your kind go again, trying to assign a value judgment based on the word "normal". Grow up.

      February 17, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
    • Matteo

      Laer

      The problem is that left handedness is a result of your genes as is hair color. Thus far there has been no definitve proof that a gene causes one to be gay. Thus far it is a behavioral choice.

      **Thus the behavior itself will not be "normal" regardless of peoples opinion primarily becuase the will always be fewwer practicioners than the norm which is hetero.

      ** My guess...otherwise mankinds demise is assured.

      February 19, 2012 at 9:35 pm |
  9. eviltaxpayer

    Ever since the arrogant one got elected its been downhill from there-
    Hate crimes that only apply to whites? Gays in the military? Gay marrage? All perverse actions that take us down the path of cultural rot
    Liberlas are gutless cowards who hate the military and want to appease to world dictators, They have no problem with record food stamps and see nothing wrong with weakining our military/power.
    We forget about the fall of the roman empire, how cultural rot and perversion led to corruption and cival war.

    February 12, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • Fallacy Spotting 101

      Root post by 'eviltaxpayer' contains a variety of common fallacies and other logical flaws, including the ad hominem and circu-mstantial ad hominem fallacies, the composition fallacy, and others.

      http://www.iep.utm.edu/fallacy/#H6

      February 12, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  10. bobcat

    I am an arch-liberal but I do not dislike republicans. However most party members today are not of the Eisenhower, GHW breed but conservatives more interested in pushing their view of the world than serving their nation.

    February 11, 2012 at 12:51 am |
  11. Aezel

    There is no culture "war." War implies that one side has a hope of winning. The conservatives are losing, as they always have and always will. Gay marriage becoming legal on a national level in the near future is as inevitable as death at this point. Get used to it.

    February 9, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  12. Sam

    There's no law that makes anyone take birth control, have an abortion or be in a gay marriage.

    February 9, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • Matteo

      And there was no law requiring anyone to own slaves yet some did.

      February 24, 2012 at 11:52 pm |
  13. Fast Fred

    This only effects people who except things just because their FREE. This has nothing to do with religion. Don't want birth control don't take the pill. Religion's are the problem not the solution.
    Religions want to control people...

    February 9, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
  14. Commie

    We will set up refuge camps for the conservatives across the border, but will you only accept conservative Christian refugees?

    February 9, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  15. Commie

    No, it is the Repugnicans that are the fascist nazis for not allowing others their freedom of religion.

    February 9, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  16. Krista

    The Catholic clergy and certain Republicans cry about religious freedom, when in fact restricting a woman's access to contraception because of the religion of those in power over here is the exact _opposite_ of religious freedom. They're trying to give control over a woman's ability to practice her faith as she chooses to her employer.

    February 9, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • Matteo

      Why is it only the womans choice? Why is it only the womans body? Isn't there another body involved here? It's a body, it's a human in a very early stage of development but a human none the less. Oh woe I cannot do whatever I want with my own body. Oh the inhumanity of it all...........

      February 12, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
  17. Losing Credence

    The hypocrisy of it all is that most people readily believe in the Separation of Church and State, not the integration of it. Yet, what they espouse is so contradictory that they speak through both sides of their mouth thereby losing credence among many people except perhaps in the ranks of the radical right wingers.

    February 9, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • Sher

      While the GOP rages about religious rights, I would like to demand the rights of those who still believe in Separation of Church and State, including my old-time Republican parents. They would take extreme offense at a Mary Matilin, a CNN Political Commentator, wearing a HUGE religious cross while making political commentary!! Is this supposed to give her some supreme credibility over others? This is beyond inappropriate.

      February 17, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
  18. Descarado

    If Obama is reelected, the next logical step will be for the Obama regime to feed their loyal supporters some red meat and force synagogues and churches to conduct h o m o s e x u a l marriage ceremonies regardless whether or not they violate their sacred credos.

    February 9, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • Simon

      Why on earth would he do that? There is no reason to do that. It would be like saying that Churches and Synagogues must marry people of other faiths. Lesbians and Gay Men can marry at City Hall or other secular locations, or at the many Churches that are not prejudiced against Gay people.

      You have nothing to worry about on that score.

      February 9, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • Real America

      Can you suggest a legal mechanism by which the Obama "regime" might accomplish this.

      February 9, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • Pot Calls Kettle Black

      It is precisely because of that way of thinking, Descarado (which incidentally means SHAMELESS, in Spanish), that people are going to Obama in 2012! There can be no doubt that most people are tired and fed up with church politics and the rhetoric and laws of exclusivity that keep them from being the free people they were meant to be! Obama offers them that freedom that this nation was founded upon and that's why he will COAST to a very comfortable reelection Victory in November! Some of you speak of a current socialist or gestapo state, but what are YOU offering if not more of the Same with your way of thinking and wanting to do things with your presidential candidates! OBAMA/BIDEN 2012!!

      February 9, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • IreneNY

      Descardo you are spreading misinformation and fear based on your own illogical musings.

      February 9, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • Kevin Williams

      I challenge you to tell me about one person on this entire earth that is pushing for such a thing. QUIT LYING. Just because you repeat something often enough does not make it true...

      February 10, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
  19. Descarado

    History has heard the marching boot steps of Obama's Gestapo before.

    "First they came for the communists, and I did not speak up because I was not a communist.
    Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak up because I am not a Jew.
    Then they came for the Catholics, and I did not speak up because I am a Protestant.
    Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak up for me."

    + Pastor Martin Neimöller.

    February 9, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • Simon

      YOu have it the wrong way round. Santorum and his ilk are the religious Authoritarians. Obama is defending the right of the individual to have their own religious beliefs, not have them imposed by their employer. It is an insult to Niemoller for you to use his words in this way.

      February 9, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • Damo

      Would you like to spit on the graves of Holocaust victims next, or will you settle for insulting them by continuously taking every political leader that you don't agree with and comparing them with the nazis?

      February 9, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • IreneNY

      Oh lord, what an a$$ you are, no need to reply to an idiot like you any further.

      February 9, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • Freedom For the People

      You have it quite wrong about Obama Descarado (Shameless), it is precisely because of what he, in effect, does to HELP People that people are flocking over to his side including many Republicans and Independents! They ARE speaking out FOR him and in great numbers because what they see from your side of things is nothing more than the need to Control the people of this country through radical right-wing means which no one wants except the right wingers, of course. So, there are plenty of people across this nation left to Speak Up for President Obama and Will at the polls in November! Thank God for that!

      February 9, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • Terri

      Get a grip

      February 9, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Laer

      Godwin's Law and Guilt by Association. Both logical fallacies, so I guess we (Obama supporters) win this argument! 🙂

      February 17, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
  20. Skyler

    Christian evangelical conservative rightwing protestant fundamental creationist flat earthers will never be able to put the cultural toothpaste back in the tube. They're sooooo wasting their time.

    February 9, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • fireobama

      Guess they should just give up....and let the Gay, Liberal, Socialist, Communist , Islamic fools have the country!!! We already have an idiot in the White House, so vote for the idiot Obama if you want the Gay, Liberal , Socialist agenda to continue!!!!!

      February 9, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Skyler

      Yes. They should give up. It is just not possible to go back in time, as much as I know you want to.

      February 9, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • Adam

      "He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in." Isaiah 40:22

      Don't be silly. A circle clearly represents a spherical object. If you were to gaze at a globe from one angle, you'd see a circle. When we look at the moon, does it not look like a circle? Or even when we observe any other planet. But if God is above all, then Isaiah was right on saying that the earth had a circle, as the planet would look like one from space. Think about it. Here's something else to think about....
      “Look now at the behemoth, which I made along with you; He eats grass like an ox. See now, his strength is in his hips,
      And his power is in his stomach muscles. He moves his tail like a cedar; The sinews of his thighs are tightly knit. His bones are like beams of bronze, His ribs like bars of iron. He is the first of the ways of God; Only He who made him can bring near His sword." Job 40:15-19
      Now tell me, do you know of any living animal of this day that could possibly have a tail as large and magestic to resemble a cedar tree? Much less an animal who's bones can be related to beams of bronze? ONLY HE WHO MADE HIM CAN BRING NEAR HIS SWORD. Now God isn't one to lie. If only the creator (God) of this animal could bring its destruction, then clearly this animal MUST have been enormous. Now, we all know what happened to the Dinosaurs. They were wiped out all around the globe. Some say by volcanos, others by an asteroid. But why not by a flood? This would perfectly wipe out Dinosaurs. If there was a global shift, then this would easily explain why a mammoth has been found with food still in his mouth as long as in his stomach, perfectly reserved. Can you imagine the chaos that must've been brought upon the whole world? Animals would've been put into different climates in a matter of hours, maybe even minutes. This can also explain the disappearance of aquatic dinosaurs as well. Yes, a global flood would've tooken place as a result. Now, if you look at the layerings of dirt, you'll find that some fossils were placed in between two or even three different layers. Fossils of the same animal. This can only tell you that a global flood took place. Cities have been found under the ocean of great design. Not just in one continent, but many. Besides that, the main thing im trying to point out, is that the bible described many many things before science ever did. But people come up with their crazy imaginations, which is why there are different stories to how the dinosaurs actually went extinct. Since the beginning there hasn't been any evolution occuring, only an extinction. Many people argue that volcanic activity could cause a species to change, but tell me this, doesn't it take thousands or millions of years for a species to "evolve" according to science??? If this is true, do you really think that a certain species, which isn't even fit to survive certain conditions in the first place, would live throughout such a hostile environment for thousand upon millions of years without going extinct? I don't think so. Evolution is a flawed idea. Like I said, its all just been an extinction since the moment Man sinned.

      February 17, 2012 at 11:01 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.