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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. Aaron

    The Republican position on social issues is one of force and no compromise. Unlike their claims of wanting smaller government, their positions require a large government with lots of regulations. They want to police the personal behavior of 300 million people. That necessarily requires a large government with lots of regulations and lots of power and resources to ensure those regulations are enforced. The second you make something illegal, you have to have the power to enforce it or the law becomes a shallow gesture. That means more cops, more judges, more court clerks, more prisons and more budgets to support all of it.

    Look at their position on drugs. It requires more government departments (the DEA), more police, more court cases, more social services (because you have to do something with the children of the parents you arrest), and more prisons with all the staff required to run them. In other words, the Republican position on drugs requires exactly the opposite of what they claim to believe in. You can't have a smaller government with less power and less regulations if you want to control what substances 300 million people decide to take.

    Now expand that to birth control and sodomy laws. They would love to outlaw abortion and bring back sodomy laws like the ones struck down in Texas. It would mean more reasons to arrest you, more control over the decisions you make, more budgets, more police and more regulations. You can't have a small, limited government and have complete control over the personal behavior of 300 million people.

    It's the Republican paradox. They claim to want a small, limited government, but at the same time they want to control the moral details of the lives of 300 million people and that requires a big, powerful government looking over everyone's shoulder.

    About the only place where Republicans want fewer regulations and less power is when it comes to what they believe is their right to pollute anything they want, discriminate against anyone they want or drill where they want.

    February 8, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
    • BigDickDudley

      Here, here! An intelligent, well-thought out post!

      February 8, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
    • Athiest Bob

      @BDDUdley.....as opposed to your intelligent well-imagined wishful nickname...

      February 8, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
    • Deirdre M Abbott

      Great comment..will use some that info if you don't mind..will attribute it to you....I am a Republican, and I think the Right-wing-nuts, need to go away. We need to vote them out in November, and vote in some clear thinking people..

      February 8, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
    • One one

      If the GOP allow their agenda to be dominated by the social conservatives they will just shoot themselves in the foot and give Obama 4 more years.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • TR6

      LIKE!

      February 8, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
  2. Sunny

    THIS is what we're worried about? Gay marriage, abortion and contraception?? So REPUBLICANS are worried about how the Government is going to CONTROL people's choices, rather than how they're going to fix the economy and overhaul the way they handle it in the future???

    February 8, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
  3. Aezel

    There is no "culture war" and there never has been. It has been nothing but 100% liberal progress throughout the whole of United States history. Civil rights have never gone backward and they never will, as much as the Republicans wish for it.

    "Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." – Martin Luther King Jr.

    February 8, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
    • Ann

      Civil rights *could* go backwards, but it would take a major crisis. A downfall of the US government, a takeover, warring in the streets, all that stuff. As long as what we have stands, yes, it will move forward. Progress is awesome.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
    • Carol

      Ann you say as long as everything stands as it is that things will progress. People won't stand for things as they stand, it has to get better, better enough that everyone is equal in the U.S., and that people chose the way they think is right for their families and themselves, not for anyone else. Then we'll have progress and that peace will allow our nation to move ahead to things that will matter in America.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
    • Aezel

      @Carol She's talking about our form of government. Try to actually read posts before you talk. You just tried to put yourself in confrontation with someone you are probably in agreement with.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
  4. farwestdude

    I cannot believe that the Catholic Church can get all upset about providing birth control to it`s employees when 98% of Catholic women who are in their childbearing years use birth control. The church therefore makes sinners out of all these women. Also the Church never got this upset over their peadophile priests but are now outraged over this silly Church rule.

    February 8, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
    • Aezel

      It is quite easy to understand. I had a Catholic priest look me in the eye no less than 3 weeks ago and tell me that birth control give you a 30% chance to get cervical cancer(which is a straight up lie). The clergy of that particular religion are just a bunch of sycophantic self-aggrandizing whackjobs that live in a land of make believe in their head so far from reality they can't even guess at what it's like anymore.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
    • TR6

      You forgot pedophile

      February 8, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
  5. Carol

    Americans do not want Religion, with the Churches, dictating what and how we use our Health Care. Stay out of our lives!

    February 8, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
  6. Jack

    If the republicans focus on the religious issues and cater to the religious right, this conservative will not vote republican, I'd rather vote Democrat. President Obama hasn't taken my guns away, like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh their cohorts said he would, He hasn't turn us into a Muslim nation as Dick Amery and his cohorts said he would. He hasn't favored the blacks over any other group as some said he would.

    I am more concerned with the religious right, Pat Robertson and his cohort telling they know what "God" thinking, and telling me that I have to believe a certain way. These people are fanatical and zealots.

    February 8, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
    • mms55

      AMEN !!

      February 8, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
  7. ecbutler

    Religion has no place in politics, especially the politics of such a diverse nation. They are just catering to the religions nut jobs for votes.

    February 8, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
    • Dave

      No idea should be dismissed simply because it comes from religion, neither should it be accepted for the same reason. Lots of people are religious and at least a portion of their ideas are going to come from their religious beliefs. The origin of the idea is not important. I don't care if it came from a Bishop, Pastor, Rabbi, Imam or Atheist. Hear the idea for its own merits.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
  8. Dave

    Disclosure: I am what most CNN commenters would consider a right wing nut, and yet what most Fox News readers would call a flaming liberal. A.k.a I'm a conservative-leaning moderate. I am also a Christian. Contrary to what is being portrayed in these comments, not all of Christianity is of the opinion that contraception is NOT a bad thing. I am personally quite fine with the idea. That being said, just because I support the use of contraception does not mean I find it legal to require people who religiously oppose its use to provide it to people. As far as they are concerned, this is essentially equivalent to requiring Jewish or Muslim soup kitchens to serve pork.

    I know several Jewish people and they do not try to shove their religion down others' throats. They are not offended that I eat pork, But I guarantee you that if the President of the United States required them to serve pork in their own kitchens (even if they are serving it to non-believers), they would be furious, and so would most of the people on this board who are deriding the Catholics who are likewise taking offence. The use of contraception is not the issue here. It's being forced to pay for and distribute things that are forbidden in your religion.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
    • Dave

      Please forgive the accidental double negative. I meant "Not all of Christianity is convinced that contraception is a bad thing"

      February 8, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
    • Observer

      Why should people of no faith or other faiths have to pay more taxes so your church doesn't. Any rights for them?

      February 8, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • Dave

      What does insuring birth control have to do with taxes? Birth control is a life style choice, not a health or life necessity. If you want to get busy with someone but don't want a kid, go buy some pills or a wrapper. Why should anyone else have to pay for that for you?

      February 8, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
    • Observer

      Dave,

      Birth control is very much a health issue. Have you seen the mortality and health risk rates for pregnant women versus those who aren't?

      February 8, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
    • Yo!

      "Birth control is very much a health issue. Have you seen the mortality and health risk rates for pregnant women versus those who aren't?"

      Especially as they get older!

      February 8, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
    • Dave

      You're setting up a straw man, arguing with what you wanted me to say rather than what I said. I never said it wasn't a health issue. I said it wasn't a health necessity. Want to stay healthy and avoid a pregnancy? Don't get busy until you can afford some pills.That may be inconvenient, but nobody should have to pay just because you can't control your urges.

      Don't get me wrong. I know it's a powerful urge and central to many people's lifestyle. However, it IS voluntary, and if you want to be able to do it without the consequences, you need to foot the bill.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
  9. Muldoon in Ohio

    We are all being hoodwinked by politicians on the issues of gay marriage, abortion, contraception, and any other slimy goop that they can use to divide us just to get votes. Wake up people – these behaviors will never go away, and politicians of both parties have no intention of getting rid of them – if they did, there'd be no issues to divide us at the polls. Since 1973, what politician do you know who promised to end abortion has delivered on that promise? None, and you can't blame the conservative supreme court appointed mostly by Reagan and the Bushes.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
  10. never again

    I don't understand why the republican party has to cow-tow to the religious nut-jobs. I mean if the republican party is the party of less government, then so be it. I can't think of any political front that wants to control the public more than the theocrats and the republicans are more than willing to give them a political relevance. It's just show that the republicans are just as power hungry as the know it all liberals.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
  11. KeystonePA

    Who cares about this stuff? I'm a 47 year old woman, and I don't. And my three teen children don't - they are actually pretty appalled that we "adults" waste so much energy arguing about whether gays and lesbians should be able to marry ("Kids don't care - and why's that bad??" is what I hear), or whether people should have access to birth control (one daughter recently said, "they're kidding, right? That's so prehistoric."), or abortion. They're right! What a shame that these social litmus issues have consumed good government and common sense, Or, as my son tells me when I'm interfering in his personal rights, "I'm sorry to say this, but can you get your own life?" How true, from the mouth of babes.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • B Ringaman

      How pathetic that your children parent you.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
  12. zeibodique

    Giving someone equal rights does not infringe or take rights away from you. It just makes it illegal to enforce your prejudice and hate. It' that simple.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  13. Interested48

    If people would mind their own business, the world would be a better place.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
  14. Liqmaticus

    Yes. The perverse will always try to sell the audience what they do is completely normal and that nature designed it that way even though if it had we would not exist. Makes complete logical sense to me.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
    • evolvedDNA

      I dont think you understand evolution.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • Rich

      Yes. And the religious will always hide behind the bible to justify their bigotry...like they did to justify slavery and segregation.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
    • Automatic Translator

      "And by 'perverse' I mean 'whatever I don't agree with'."

      February 8, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
    • WellDuh!

      "it had we would not exist."

      Since you were too lazy to actually study gays have been with us throughout human history, we are doing just fine, actually more than fine we are about to have too many people and too few resources. So maybe if we had let gays alone we wouldn't be in this stupid place of over populating this planet and destroying all it's natural resources!

      February 8, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
    • Aezel

      Nature doesn't "design" anything. Thanks for demonstrating that you have about a preschool level understanding of evolution though. It saved everyone a lot of time that my have been fooled into taking you seriously.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
  15. nothing new here

    For a group of people that claim to be modest and moral, they sure spend a lot of time focusing on other people's genitalia.
    SICK!

    February 8, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
    • One one

      They are obsessed with foreskins also. Google "holy prepuce"

      February 8, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  16. Jim Rousch

    The right may have resumed the culture war, but the left has already won.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • Da King

      The world may believe that.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • Norman

      da king-its a mathematical certainty-sorry bud

      February 8, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
  17. Marcia

    “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”
    Seneca
    This quote has stayed true for about 2 thousand years so why does mankind not learn this lesson?

    February 8, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • Earthling

      Because the wise people are so vastly outnumbered by the ignorant masses.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • QS

      Fear.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • MaryM

      Great quote

      February 8, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
    • The 666 Club

      Because as a whole, we're morons.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
    • Aezel

      Because you don't need a P.h.D to f*** in the back of a Volkswagen a spew out more little stupid offspring. Besides your quote another constant that has remained true is that the dumber they are, the faster they breed.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
  18. tom

    FIRE Roland!!!

    February 8, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • us1776

      Done.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • tom

      nope, he's just been suspended...

      February 8, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
  19. tony

    If a conservative wants to see what my wife does in the privacy of her bedroom, come on in. You can meet my 12 gauge shot coming the other way.

    February 8, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
    • Dusty

      Because they feel that their children are going to be influenced by it and start to think differently than they want them to. They feel threatened by other people doing private things when they should feel threatened by their own shortcomings as parents.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • tamarinds

      Bringing guns into it will only make them more excited.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
  20. sybaris

    Why do conservatives care who people love, what they do with their genitalia and what pills they take in the privacy of their own home?

    February 8, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
    • lol

      because they're idiots?

      February 8, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • saopaco

      Because they know what's best for all of us and do not mind forcing us to live up to their standards.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      @Sybaris

      Self-righteous indignation, and discontent with their own lives.

      February 8, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • Carol

      All replys apply.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:18 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.