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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. Right but left

    Why does the Republican party think it has to the right to tell anyone how to live?

    February 8, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • Elliot

      Because they want a small government that stays out of our lives. Makes perfect sense doesn't it? I consider myself a fiscal conservative but I can't jump on this band wagon.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
  2. DoNotWorry

    I wouldn't get too excited. Hardly anyone is voting in those primaries... the religious far right. If we get a nutcase for a presidential candidate on the far right, why be shocked? 50% of the voters are represented by no party... and because of their refusal to adopt a party and vote, they are unrepresented except insofar as they choose to vote for a Democrat or Republican. Not cute when one of the parties is so off the wall. I left the Republican Party when they nominated Dubya. I joined the Green Party this year. No corporate money, reasonable platform, organization in all states. If you want to choose between the Democratic Party and the nutcases... up to you.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
  3. Right but left

    The GoP only stands for one thing nowdays and that is their mantra as well. We are for your freedoms as long as we approve first...

    February 8, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  4. Sagebrush Shorty

    Culture wars, racial divide,class warfare. They never left thanks to the Obama administration.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • J.W

      Republicans are the only ones who think these things exist.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • Jason

      You mean the GOP?

      February 8, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • GAboy

      Just because they never left YOU doesn't mean everyone else is still fighting them.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • Hammer Of The Gods

      Sagebrush Shorty

      Culture wars, racial divide,class warfare. They never left thanks to the Bush administration.

      Fixed that.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
  5. RasPutin

    People who oppose contraception are simply Prudes, who want to impost their own s3xual frustrations on everyone else. They somehow think imposing the fear of pregnancy will keep other people from "doing it".

    Well, this delusion simply doesn't work. They are actually causing the rash of abortions they are railing against.
    I agree – stop abortions! By providing everyone with access to education and free contraceptives.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  6. Joshua Martin

    Rick Santorum tried to spin it as the economy not being the main issue at hand here for the country, but social values during one of his rally speeches. I lol'd

    February 8, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  7. Bai La

    Thank God for Buddhism!

    February 8, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  8. Elliot

    I'm glad my fellow republicans are more concernced with social issues than the economy in these rough times. Makes lots of sense.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • J.W

      Well when immorality is occurring people lose hope in mankind. When people lose hope in mankind, the become depressed. When people become depressed they become less productive at work. When they become less productive at work, business suffers, people lose their jobs, and the economy collapses.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • yeahalright

      Is that from a Glenn Beck flowchart?

      February 8, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • Elliot

      It's not the goverments job to tell us what is moral and not. If I want to smoke a joint that is none of your business, if my wife wants it in through the out door that is none of your business, if my wifes life is in danger from having a baby and we decide not too that is none of your business. As republicans we preach less government but at the same time half of us want to elect a moron that wants to through his beliefs on all of us. GET OUT OF MY LIFE with your false religion.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • J.W

      Well if you are so angry just vote democrat.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • Elliot

      J.W., if Santorum is the candidate I might be forced to do that. I may throw up afterwards but I can't vote for this clown.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
    • Hammer Of The Gods

      Well when RELIGIOUS HATRED is occurring people lose hope in mankind. When people lose hope in mankind, the become depressed. When people become depressed they become less productive at work. When they become less productive at work, business suffers, people lose their jobs, and the economy collapses.

      Better !

      February 8, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
  9. Tim

    Stevo–where have you been? This is old news. Just because the prez called for civility doesn't mean the culture generals are going to fall into line.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  10. Reality

    One does not need Planned Parenthood to teach our kids about se-x. Simply read and have your kids read the following:

    WARNING!!! WARNING!!! WARNING!!!

    The failures of the widely used birth "control" methods i.e. the Pill ( 8.7% failure rate, one million unplanned pregnancies) and male con-doms (17.4% failure rate, another one million unplanned pregnancies ) have led to the large rate of abortions and S-TDs in the USA. Se-xually active teens, young adults and adults must either recognize their responsibilities by using the Pill or co-ndoms properly and/or use safer methods in order to reduce the epidemics of abortion and S-TDs.- Failure rate statistics provided by the Gut-tmacher Inst-itute.

    Added information before making your next move:

    from the CDC-2006

    "Se-xually transmitted diseases (STDs) remain a major public health challenge in the United States. While substantial progress has been made in preventing, diagnosing, and treating certain S-TDs in recent years, CDC estimates that approximately 19 million new infections occur each year, almost half of them among young people ages 15 to 24.1 In addition to the physical and psy-ch-ological consequences of S-TDs, these diseases also exact a tremendous economic toll. Direct medical costs as-sociated with STDs in the United States are estimated at up to $14.7 billion annually in 2006 dollars."

    And from:

    Consumer Reports, January, 2012

    "Yes, or-al se-x is se-x, and it can boost cancer risk-

    Here's a crucial message for teens (and all se-xually active "post-teeners": Or-al se-x carries many of the same risks as va-ginal se-x, including human papilloma virus, or HPV. And HPV may now be overtaking tobacco as the leading cause of or-al cancers in America in people under age 50.

    "Adolescents don’t think or-al se-x is something to worry about," said Bonnie Halpern-Felsher professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. "They view it as a way to have intimacy without having 's-ex.'"
    Obviously,

    Planned Parenthood, parents and the educational system have obviously failed miserably on many fronts.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
    • Elliot

      Well you better go and pray some more, that will fix everything.

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

      You don't make any sense. I understand what you've written, it just doesn't prove your conclusion. LIke, at all.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • Reality

      "Facts on Contraceptive Use

      http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/fb_contr_use.html
      January 2008

      "WHO NEEDS CONTRACEPTIVES?

      • 62 million U.S. women (and men?) are in their childbearing years (15–44).[1]

      • 43 million women (and men) of reproductive age, or 7 in 10, are se-xually active and do not want to become pregnant, but could become pregnant if they or their partners fail to use a con-traceptive method.[2]

      • The typical U.S. woman (man?) wants only 2 children. To achieve this goal, she (he?) must use cont-raceptives for roughly 3 decades.[3]

      WHO USES CON-TRACEPTIVES?

      • Virtually all women (98%) aged 15–44 who have ever had int-ercourse have used at least one con-traceptive method.[2](and men?)

      • Overall, 62% of the 62 million women aged 15–44 are currently using one.[2] (and men)

      • 31% of the 62 million women (and men?) do not need a method because they are infertile; are pregnant, postpartum or trying to become pregnant; have never had inte-rcourse; or are not se-xually active.[2]

      • Thus, only 7% of women aged 15–44 are at risk of unwanted pregnancy but are not using con-traceptives.[2] (and men?)

      • Among the 42 million fertile, s-exually active women who do not want to become pregnant, 89% are practicing con-traception.[2] (and men?)

      WHICH METHODS DO WOMEN (men?) USE?

      • 64% of reproductive-age women who practice con-traception use reversible methods, such as oral con-traceptives or condoms. The remaining women rely on female or male sterilization.[2]

      FIRST-YEAR CON-TRACEPTIVE FAILURE RATES

      Percentage of women (men?) experiencing an unintended pregnancy (a few examples)

      Method……………..Typical

      Pill (combined)……… 8.7
      Tubal sterilization ……0.7
      Male condom ……….17.4
      Vasectomy…………… 0.2

      Periodic abstinence.. 25.3 (RCC approved)
      Calendar 9.0 (RCC approved)
      Ovulation Method 3.0 (RCC approved)
      Sympto-thermal 2.0 (RCC approved)
      Post-ovulation 1.0 (RCC approved)

      No method 85.0" (RCC approved and important to women and men wanting to get pregnant)

      (Abstinence) 0 (RCC approved)

      (Masturbation) 0

      More facts about contraceptives from

      guttmacher.org/pubs/fb_contr_use.html

      "CON-TRACEPTIVE METHOD CHOICE

      Cont-raceptive method use among U.S. women who practice con-traception, 2002

      Method No. of users (in 000s) % of users
      Pill………….. 11,661……………. 30.6
      Male condom 6,841……………… 18.0 "

      i.e.
      The pill fails to protect women 8.7% during the first year of use (from the same reference previously shown).

      i.e. 0.087 (failure rate)
      x 62 million (# child bearing women)
      x 0.62 ( % of these women using contraception )
      x 0.306 ( % of these using the pill) =

      1,020,000 unplanned pregnancies
      during the first year of pill use.

      For male condoms (failure rate of 17.4 and 18% use level)

      1,200,000 unplanned pregnancies during the first year of male condom use.

      The Gut-tmacher Inst-itute (same reference) notes also that the perfect use of the pill should result in a 0.3% failure rate
      (35,000 unplanned pregnancies) and for the male condom, a 2% failure rate (138,000 unplanned pregnancies).

      o Conclusion: The failures of the widely used birth "control" methods i.e. the pill and male condom have led to the large rate of abortions and S-TDs in the USA. Men and women must either recognize their responsibilities by using the pill or condoms properly and/or use other methods in order to reduce the epidemics of abortion and S-TDs.

      February 8, 2012 at 11:50 pm |
  11. just sayin

    For better or worse Santorum is a contender

    February 8, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • Marlon Brando

      I could have been a contender...

      February 8, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • abcdxyz

      For worse. . .

      February 8, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  12. Mike

    Use of the term "culture wars" is media inspired hypo-labeling that trivializes the momentous struggle in our nation between factions of voters who very much need to try to understand each other. Dismissing people's profound disagreements over such very imprtant issues is a huge disservice to all who read these so called news articles and editorials. You can and must do better CNN!

    February 8, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • Dion

      I totally disagree with you and reject your worldview in everyway.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
    • Dave M

      Isn't what you are describing a culture war? We have individuals with different cultural values not being to relate to one another. The label is not dismissive. Labels are useful because if people are familiar with them, communication is much quicker.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • Hammer Of The Gods

      Shoot the messenger ?
      That didnt work for Sarah palin.
      It wont work for the GOP.
      Good or bad, CNN does provide information.
      I would rather be informed, so i can make up my own mind.

      You fail.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
  13. Melanie

    Nice, a poll conducted on behalf of Planned Parenthood? I'll be sure to take that seriously. Besides, you're missing the point. It isn't about how many Catholics use birth control or understand Church teaching. It is about religious freedom. Mr. Prothero has only examined this through his understanding and, like most, hasn't bothered to educate themselves on the issues through the lens of those who disagree. I can assure you, the Bishops will have plenty of foot soldiers as evidenced by Santorum's win yesterday. Plus, leaders of other faiths – including Jewish, Protestant and Orthodox traditions – have all come to the defense of the Catholic Church.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • QS

      "Besides, you're missing the point. It isn't about how many Catholics use birth control or understand Church teaching. It is about religious freedom....to discriminate as they see fit."

      There, fixed. 🙂

      February 8, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • Ace

      Here's the basic point about religious freedom that people just don't understand. When religion seeps into the public domain, non-believers like myself feel excluded or in some cases offended. BUT, when the public square is purely secular, NO ONE feels excluded. Religious people can still practice their religion in their homes and churches. This is why a secular society and government are more peaceful – it is a neutral environment that doesn't offend anybody!

      February 8, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • Todd

      Melanie, here's the deal. You can't take taxpayer money and then use that taxpayer money to discriminate against the tax payer who is paying you. See how that works? Abortion is legal so needs to be covered.

      If an organization wishes to not provide coverage for legal services, all it needs to do is to stop taking tax payer money and then they can discriminate all they want. But cannot take tax payer money and then discriminate and refuse services to those very same tax payers

      February 8, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • Awakened

      You say "freedom of religion". TRUE freedom of religion would mean that a Catholic girl has a choice to receive birthcontrol pills or not at the Catholic Hospital, mow that is TRUE freedom of religion!

      February 9, 2012 at 1:21 am |
  14. Dion

    Culture Warriors....MAN YOUR BATTLESTATIONS!!!

    February 8, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  15. Bill

    Polls are very misleading on this topic for two reasons:

    1) most people haven't given serious thought to these issues and are just giving their "feeling"... it would not be hard for person with well-thought out positions (on either side of the issue) to expose the lack of logic in their position and get them to change their mind... most people just reflect their culture. In other words, their positions are "soft"

    2) the results don't reflect the intensity of the position.

    For example, on contraception, the 53% of Catholics who apparently favor the rule are not going to support Obama because of it... it is a secondary issue. However, for the 47% who oppose the rule, it is likely a deal breaker. Obama will not gain any support that he didn't already have but he most certainly will lose the support of hard-core Catholics who might otherwise have voted for him. THAT is what makes it a big net loser for him.

    On abortion, most people are simply confused and inconsistent on the issue. But for those to whom this is a litmus test, I would suspect pro-life outnumbers pro-choice and the numbers are moving in favor of pro-life every year. Pro-choicers are more inclined to consider a pro-life president if they agree with him on other issues, believing that Roe v Wade is a firewall that protects abortion so there's not much the president can do. Pro-lifers would never vote for a pro-choice candidate because it is viewed as a fundamental character flaw.

    Finally, gay marriage. Of the so-called majority who support gay marriage, you can put most of them in the category of "I don't give a #*%@ so why not." 40% of people don't think marriage is important anyway so of course why wouldn't they support "gay" marriage but the issue isn't a big deal for them either way. Of the other 60% who think marriage is important, the overwhelming majority oppose gay marriage and they feel strongly about it. So you have a small percentage (I would guess 15%) for whom this is a litmus test in support of gay marriage and you have a much larger percentage who would NEVER vote for a candidate who supports gay marriage.

    So on all three issues, the intensity favors the conservative position

    February 8, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • Eric G

      Sorry Bill, but I must ask for references for your statistics. Without evidence to support your claims, your post is intellectually dishonest.

      Interesting points, but you must provide proof that they are actually based on fact.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • Hammer Of The Gods

      Nice spin.
      Complete fail.
      I can make up this crap just as good as you.
      The sorry part is that you would go through the trouble
      of sounding intelligent, and fall on your face
      with made up statistics.
      Nice try.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
  16. chedar

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

    February 8, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
    • michele

      wow – would the spouse and I be in trouble 🙂

      February 8, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • Center Of The Universe

      Humans are not yet ready to understand thier origins.
      Your god is "RA" the sun.
      Your seasons are the birth of the sun,
      and the death of the sun,
      sun = son.

      In times of old stories had been created
      to understand how man fits into the universe.
      But they are just stories.

      You are not ready for the truth.
      The truth is coming.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
  17. longshot

    in another generation the GOTP will have painted itself into such a corner, all that will be left in the party will be their small core groups of rich white bigots and ignorant religious bigots

    February 8, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • Tex71

      Another generation of fruit flies, maybe; seems to me they are there already. I guess we will find out this November!

      February 8, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • yeahalright

      I hope so. But don't forget poor and middle class people voting republican because they think they'll actually make it to the 1% some day.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • Monisha

      Dont think so,
      No way some liberal is gonna tell me i got to ascept those gays.
      I live in Alabama, Obummer is a uncle tom.
      God fearing peoples dont like this stuff.
      Why you gotta push this crap on the rest of tyhe country is beyond me.
      We be hoping that god works his wonders.
      Send them all to heck.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
  18. Cassarit

    They may have a lot of economic power. They may own corporations and they may have the political and business classes shaking in their boots. But they will never have the American people. When their day comes America will rise up and wipe them off the face of the earth.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  19. lsdjr72

    This is all so funny. Truth will win out.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  20. Thinking7

    Santorum has the ethics that are needed to get this country back on course. It has gone down a deep hole. Obama and his ideas on taking our freedoms away needs to go.

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

      Specifically, which rights has Obama taken away? I know he expanded gun rights but which did he take away?

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

      I'm leery of anyone who believes somebody is ethical simply because they are religious.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • yeahalright

      Can we get that list of freedoms he took away? Certainly not the freedom to be willfully ignorant.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • Dave M

      I'm pretty sure that Santorum is the one who wants to limit freedoms, more than Obama or any other remaining GOP candidate. That is was social conservatives do - take away freedoms.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • Tex71

      Obviously, "Thinking7" (?) cherishes the freedom to force other Americans to abide by your personal narrow-minded interpretation of a tradition whose origin you cannot trace. I prefer to let Americans mind their own business and let their own consciences be their guides.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • Grog Says

      Grog says,
      Pet a kitty,
      dont slap a sleeping tiger.
      Hate will bite you.
      Grog knows.

      February 8, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
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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.