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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. Peikoviany

    Why would there have been any "truce" on these issues? Some people believe in mysticism, some are atheist. Some people believe in Classical Liberalism, some want Social Liberalism. Some people do things in private that others would never do. To the extent these facts are kept out of government, there is domestic harmony. Some facts promote moral choices, and there will always be conflict at some level about them.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
  2. Eric G

    I hope Santorum wins the nomination. The only thing that would have been better would have been Bachman.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      Better for entertainment value I would agree with.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
  3. John Kantor

    Some fanatics wear turbans. Some wear ties.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
  4. well

    As long as we focus on these non issues, we won't notice the fact that both parties are all for indefinite detentions of citizens and war with Iran and Syria.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • sam

      When you wear your tinfoil hat to keep the mind control waves out, do you twist the top up a little so you look like a giant Hershey's kiss?

      February 8, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
  5. lee s

    Mind your own damn business These shouldnt even be issues for our govt.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
  6. no se

    We can only hope that at some point in the relatively near future, "none of your business" will once again become not only fashionable, but a basic tenet of American culture.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  7. scieng1

    It still comes down to the economy. The $10 trillion in new regulations and taxes Obama's administration is proposing will not promote job growth, and will force more jobs overseas and create more poverty like the last $2 trillion in regs did. Santorum will end the massive Obama corruption, and restore jobs to America that Obama is forcing out. Romney will just play along.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • yeahalright

      $10 trillion huh?

      February 8, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • Bob

      Pulled that number straight out of your voluminous ass didja huh?

      Just another right wing liar.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • David in SLC

      If by "$10 trillion" you mean "some number made up by a Fox News pundit that reinforces my unfounded beliefs" then yes, I agree these regulatory proposals are terrible!

      Anyway, the only culture war that exists is on TV which considering overall TV viewership as a % is at an all-time low I find quite funny. I for one am getting tired of these types of people trying to tell me how to live my life.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
  8. Mr Chihuahua

    Mr Santorum I knew Bobby Kennedy. And Mr Santorum..........eat a dick! lol!

    February 8, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • Wholly Mary

      And a taco!

      February 8, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
  9. Les.

    The only reason that these issues come up every election is because the media drags them up in every election. The quickest way for this country to go forward is very simple. Eliminate the GOP. Problem solved.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  10. Religion is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes nothing
    There is mental illness in prayer
    There is no spirit in prayer
    There is nothing living in prayer
    Prayer really changes nothing

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

      About time!!!!

      February 8, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • well

      Really because there are many studies showing lower depression, alcoholism, divorce and drug use among the religious. I guess you are just talking out of you uninformed biases.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • Nope

      ~~~The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs.~~"~~~~~~

      February 8, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
  11. mendacitysux

    Culture wars are only good for the Church, big business, and the politicians. Its all about control.
    Religion for the common people is true, the wise is false, and the rulers useful

    February 8, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
  12. macromancer

    This notion of a culture war is being perpetuated by the talking heads on Fox who are making bank off it by scaring ignorant old people. There is no war on religion, there is no culture war. All people have to do is mind their own business and everything will be just fine for people of all beliefs.

    The problem comes when one side (the religious rightwing nutbags) thinks that by not allowing them to dump all over other people's lives, that somehow is a violation of their rights.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
  13. daveinla

    This thing has been going on since the 1920's, prohibition, flapper girls and the Scopes trial. The 1924 Democratic Convention went to 103 ballots over NY Irish Catholic davis or Georgia Klansman MacAdoo. This last round directly traces back to the 1960's. I think it 100% fine for someone to vote their religious and cultural background. 90% of blacks vote straight Dem and GOP blacks like Rice and Powell crossed over to vote for Obama based on race. If white Christians want to get behind someone...thats o.k. too.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
  14. Jt_flyer

    Sanatorium is a dend-end for the GOP. Celebrate while you can you're only electing Obama.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • Jt_flyer

      *dead-end

      February 8, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
  15. Elliot

    The problem is they hold these caususes on weeknights when the real americans are just getting home from work or taking care of the kids. The only ones showing up to these polls are retired zealots that are more concerned with what you do behind closed doors than your paycheck. Get rid of the caucuses and allow mail in ballots and Santorum wouldn't stand a chance.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • no se

      Excellent post.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  16. borisjimbo

    And we're back to "My God can beat up your God". Please just make them go away.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
  17. MF

    This is driven by the press/ media and the elite trying to pry our attention away from the economy. My guess is that this is not a huge issue with the everyday middle class American. Most folks I know are focused on the economy. They (see above) keep trying to slow down the dissension in this country but it is like throwing snowballs at an M1 tank.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
  18. Sarah

    You see! The power of prayer is working!! Rick Santorum is winning!!! You just have to pray and BELIEVE!!!!

    February 8, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • mendacitysux

      At least she didn't say "Just say no"

      February 8, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
    • john

      whoa...slow down...have we taken our meds today??

      February 8, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
    • GAboy

      Keep prayin' and believin' Sarah. I'm sure it'll work. While your at it, pray for me to win the lottery.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
    • Inglourious

      God want Santorum to be President?

      February 8, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      @Sarah

      So I guess that whole free will thing doesn't exist then? If a few people praying can affect the minds of people, then where is our free will?

      February 8, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
  19. p41

    R. Santorum is a racist, beligerant pig; and so is his follower's. The old south will NEVER rise again! The bl00d of billion's of redn3cks will fl0w bef0re that happens.

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

      Those R3dn3cks bought all the buIIets up from Walmarts already.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
  20. Elliot

    If Santorum got hit by a bus I would throw a party and celebrate.

    February 8, 2012 at 5:59 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.