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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. Occupy Wall Street for senate 2016

    Ricky boy is our version of a Taliban leader.

    Let's worry about the bankster criminals looting our country dry. Then we can focus on the religious "nonsense" this article labels as culture wars.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • Peikoviany

      Either way, you're going down.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  2. Kerry

    All the better for Obama. The masses do not want to mix religion with government, it's a bad precedent. Tea Party are a minority.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  3. Juan

    My, my, my...There are disturbing problems with the GOP Tea Party Activists...the shot of Santorum with this article is the same group shot President Obama had with the Bapists Ministers during the 2008 Campaign. The GOP Tea Party really do not have any original or new ideas on how to move America forward. They are stuck in the past of 2008 back to 1950.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  4. Katie

    Why would anyone care what a bunch of bishops have to say about birth control? It's not like they've ever used it, or been with someone who has.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • HT

      Are you sure about that?

      February 8, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  5. GLADOS

    I miss Chell...

    February 8, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  6. DaveX

    Wow. I have never been more embarassed to live in Colorado. Who the hell are you people who voted for this 17th-century moronic bigot? Good grief.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • Colorado

      Right?!? It's the hill people on the western slope

      February 8, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  7. Tea Party Dem

    you libs do realize that secularism has become a religion, right?

    February 8, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • reality check

      A religion based on reason

      February 8, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • Ed

      The common thread of "religion" is belief in some supernatural power/being. Secularism stands for the primacy of humans, not gods.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • Katie

      Religion means blind faith in something that cannot be seen or proven. Secularism means using evidence to make sure that all people are being treated equally. There are no churches or temples where everyone gets together and prays to the secularist god, and hopes that secularism will one day magically save the world.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • ajbuff

      Actually, that is not correct. It is the absence of religion. The absence of something is not something – it is nothing. Define all the hallmarks of religion – they are not present. Nice try.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • oh really

      Please expand.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • J.W

      Actually all secular means is not pertaining to a particular religion or belief. It has nothing to do with Christianity, or Atheism or any other belief.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • chedar

      You realized that if Santorum wins the presidency in 2012, you have no other position with your wife except the missioanary. Other than the missionary, you will be prosecuted with the fullest extend of the law.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • Kupledon

      No, not really.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • Kupledon

      Chedar, in that case let us start practicing the missionary position. In fact, to really get good at it, let us all exchange wives and practice. If he doesn't win we can make our apologies and go back to normal.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • TRH

      And you SURELY realize that that is totally bogus and idiotic statement.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • WachetAuf

      Take an aspirin.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • DinI

      you might explain this to the libs but they will not understand

      February 8, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
  8. Pacific View

    The culture wars are and always have been just an instrument of manipulation by politicians. Need a big base turn-out on election day, put some initiative about gays or abortion on the ballot. The problem for the GOP is that they have been so good at this that much of thier base believes they are the party of God. Conflating religion and politics never seems to work out too well.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • Hammer Of The Gods

      I looked up the words "liberal" and "conservative" in the dictionary.
      I would rather be a liberal.
      Things dont stay the same.
      You cant go backwards.
      Check it out.
      I doubt any conservatives will.
      They wont like what they hear.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
  9. oregonslee

    The current and evident nationwide revival of racism mirrors the current revival of christian evangelism; and these also mirror the rise of right wing politics and politicians who encourage and join in these activities. There is a small segment of society that is now blatantly and publicly racist. Don't say liberals are pulling the race card, when it's clear that genuine racists have gone public. This is the core truth of your so-called "culture wars."

    February 8, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • lsdjr72

      Thank you for exposing your ignorance. It was evangelical Christians who brought down slavery. Welcome to the truth.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • Katie

      It was also evangelicals who brought about Prohibition. We saw how well that worked out.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • WachetAuf

      To lsdjr72:

      The answer is always much more difficult than your easy and impulsive one. There were some people of Christian faith who helped eliminate slavery. There were many others who resisted and for 100 years fought bitterly against integration. Because it was a democratic administration which finally broke the backs of segregation in the 1960's, those who fought so bitterly against integration moved to the republican party to the regret of many republicans who are finding no home for the expression of their true political beliefs.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • Inglourious

      @isdjr72: Sorry, but the Southern Baptist Convention was formed when pro-slavery Baptists in the South split from abolitionists in the North.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • TRH

      lsdjr72

      "Thank you for exposing your ignorance. It was evangelical Christians who brought down slavery. Welcome to the truth."

      I'd really like to see an explanation of this statement.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
  10. kebyboyer

    Great article, Stephen - Thanks!

    February 8, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  11. Tea Party Dem

    it is wild how many libs think they know how i worship.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • yeahalright

      I don't know about the other libs, some of them worship stuff they or others made up too. But I don't need the details. Saying you worship (assuming it's a made up diety) is enough for me to know you don't live 100% in reality.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • Ed

      Liberals don't care how you worship so long as you're not interfering with the rights of others.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  12. jespo

    So, when your 12yo daughter is rap-ed by some drunk, and Santorum has stopped abortion rights, please tell me how you'll explain that to your daughter?

    February 8, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • TTT55

      Unfortunately, you'll have to tell her, "Sweetheart, go fetch a wire hanger."

      February 8, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • Jo

      That is not a strong argument since it only affects a small number of people. I am for pro choice.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  13. glyder

    stalin,lenin,mao.athiests?

    February 8, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • yeahalright

      Doctors, janitors, car washers, accountants, park rangers, police officers, taxi drivers, and I'm guessing a few of the people sitting near you in church each week too, going through the motions so as not to be ostracized by the community. It's kind of like fight club though. Soon we'll reach critical mass and take over everything and you'll know and fear our real names just like mao and all the others. The takeover is near. Muhuhuhahahahahahahahaha.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • jespo

      The devil behind every doorway syndrome...

      February 8, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • ohnugget001

      Troll much?

      February 8, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • Nick-o

      Spanish Inquisition

      February 8, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  14. WachetAuf

    I am not against religion. I am just not for it for the many reasons which are expressed in some of these comments. While there have been some exceptions, due to the corruption of politics and fragile egos, religion divides most of us rather than bringing us together. The biggest problem with religion, as I see it, is that it relieves the religious from the responsibility of reasoning and negotiating rational solutions with the others who truly count, our "neighbors" (broadly defined). What has been ordained by god is truly irrelevant if we do not communicate directly with our "neighbors".

    Prayer is only a conversation which we have with ourselves and all that it can do, for most of us, is reinforce the many stupid things we believe about ourselves and "others". In prayer we tend to "rationalize rather than "reason". What if, instead, we "prayed" to our "neighbors"? Prayer is a truly reflective state of mind which should bring us closer to some kind of truth about ourselves, who we are. If that truly reflective state of mind was brought into a conversation with out "neighbors" then, and only then, as I see it, will we put aside the "rationalization" and begin to "reason" toward solutions. That must have been what was originally intended by most religions. When we get God (the personality of God as he is now defined by a majority, that is) out of it, it will force us to talk and reason with one another, responsibly.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  15. reality check

    This country was founded by Free Masons, enlightenment Humanists, and Unitarians. They had great respect for the religious and cultural basis of Western civilization but most would in no way consider themselves religious conservatives.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • jespo

      Thank you.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • jeffyboy

      The declaration contains the phrase "they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights"

      In other words, human rights don't seem to come from a human giving another human his rights. This is the only way to rationalize it. Otherwise, it becomes a matter of one atheist claiming that his right is of higher significance than another atheists rights. No such thing exists because all atheists come into existence as equals.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • yeahalright

      I think the key there is "their" creator. Meaning people get to decide for themselves who or what created them and how.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • msadr

      ummm... You can't become a Mason unless you believe in God. It's a fundamental requirement. No atheists allowed. There's a fact for your so-called reality check.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
  16. yeahalright

    I love the demographic numbers. Retrograde views will be dying out and this and future generations will look back in disgust at how eager we once were to dictate what goes on in people's bedrooms. It sometimes goes in fits and starts, but eventually progress overcomes backwardness.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • Ed

      Conservatism is like the struggle of sisyphus because the only constant is change. It may move slowly, but its power is relentless.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  17. Rinsewind

    Fellow theists: Please understand something. You do NOT have to believe in God to have a coherent system of ethics. Most atheists I know have though quite extensively about ethics and have a solid moral code. They believe their ethical positions are backed up by reason, rather than a god, but they are strong ethical positions nonetheless. Give them a little credit, please.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • yeahalright

      Appreciate the credit 🙂 I'd add empathy to reason as far as what supports this athiest's morality.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • Tea Party Dem

      alarming how few "intellectuals" grasp the 1st Amendment.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • TRH

      Tea Party Dem

      "alarming how few "intellectuals" grasp the 1st Amendment."

      What's YOUR grasp?

      February 8, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • Guest

      Although I'm a practicing Catholic, I can appreciate this comment, it's a little frustrating that articles like these make people think that just because you are religious you can't think "outside of the box."

      February 8, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • msadr

      I know quite a few athiests. Every last one of them changes their "code" the second it becomes inconvenient. They are all arrogant, selfish fools.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
  18. D.C.

    Hi Stephen, why be so politically correct with the term "Culture Wars" it's simply "Religious Wars" – you in the U.S. are way too hung up on religion which also brings massive predjudice (gays, abortion) – that's why Romney probably won't get elected and that whack job religious nut Santorum will get crushed by Obama, because he won't pick up any of the moderates. You should call it the "Predjudice Wars"!

    February 8, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • TRH

      That's just about right. Well-said.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  19. northshoresurfdog

    Couple of basics: check them out:

    1) god did not intend for men to marry men. period (this is really ez everybody)
    2) there is nothing wrong with contraception. period.
    3) abortion is wrong. period
    4) obama shouldnt be dictating that insurance companies have to provide free birth control. this is a feature of socialist medical system.

    these are very basic concepts. You can argue them if you want, but your opinion doesn't change reality.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • Rinsewind

      What you state are opinions rather than facts. And you are right, opinions do not change reality.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • Inglourious

      Putting "period" at the end of your opinions does not turn them into facts.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • yeahalright

      So you give four opinions, wave a wand, and they become facts???

      February 8, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • TRH

      Your opinions only. The only thing you correctly stated is No. 2.

      'but your opinion doesn't change reality."........YOUR "reality"....and yours don't change actual reality.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • northshoresurfdog

      ok, number 4 is probably an opinion. Maybe even #2. #1 &3 are about as simple as you can get, certainly understandable by anyone who recognizes God as lord and creator, and even if you are an atheist, these are still just as simple, supported by science, and any law of nature you care to embrace.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • GodDidn'tWriteTheBIble

      Stop pretending you know what God wants. It's ridiculous.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • Put The Gun Down

      *** god did not intend for men to marry men. period ....

      I am so impressed.
      God told you this himself huh ?
      You know what you can do with your period ?
      Take a guess.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • Do Not Disassemble

      My parents always said never argue with a moron.
      You will be dragged down to thier level.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • Mortalc01l

      Since there is no God (or maybe thousands? Thor, Odin, Osiris, RA, Yaweh, Apollo, Diana, Janus, etc, etc, ad infinitum) #1 is wrong

      You seem to be correct on #2

      #3. should be up to the individual Woman, since it's HER freaking body and NOT yours or any other religious nutbag's

      Socialist medicine works VERY well!!! Note that the USA is 34th in the World in terms of medical efficacy, yet has by far the most expensive cost... What does that tell you? I have lived under both the US medical care model and the UK's and I can tell you that the UK's is infinitely better..

      Again, MY opinion vs. YOUR opinion... not facts.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  20. easylife

    @Talmonis

    One of the more famous atheists is heetler. The chin ese govt is all atheist also. These are examples of good atheists.

    Yes, all religious people are bad. Just because they believe in their creator, makes them bad. And it makes atheists much more superior people.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • TRH

      "Heetler" was not an atheist. He was a Roman Catholic that once considered becoming a priest at age eight. He believed in an Aryan Jesus Christ.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • Ryan82

      Also if "Heetler" was an atheist why would he have all of his officers ware belt buckles that said "GOTT MIT UNS." or in english "GOD WITH US." he sure sounds like an atheist me.

      February 8, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • Nick-o

      Just because you can type two sentences together doesn't mean you're smart

      February 8, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • Colorado

      Got mittens?

      February 8, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • Do Not Disassemble

      The catholic church often recieved delegates from the Third Riech.
      You might say they where in bed together.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • Mortalc01l

      Your argument is utter tripe! The religious do bad things in the name of religion/their God/their berserk interpretation of whatever book opf fairy-tales they happen to have been brainwashed by and because they are sociopaths/psychopaths/delusional...

      When Atheists do something bad, it's not in the name of Atheism, now is it? It's because they too are sociopaths/psychopaths/delusional... BIG difference! If you can't follow that logic, then you should just stop trying to think, you might damage the two functional brain cells you have left

      February 8, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • easylife

      @Mortalc01l

      There is no bad thing in atheism, other than belief in God. Everything else is good. There is no 10 commandments that tell me that lying is bad. I can lie all the time. Chris tians have a rule that says lying is bad. It's easy to tell when a chris tian is being bad. That's why religion is bad for my health. I would rather do whatever I want. There is no atheist book of morals. Other than the lack of belief in God, there is nothing that unites atheists. Each atheist can believe anything he/she wants. One atheists sociopath can be another atheists model citizen.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
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