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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. RAMBLE3144

    The CNN top opinion guy, Roland Martin, has been suspended for being himself. What morals here!

    February 8, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
    • C.B.1

      Time for the issue of Medical Marijuana to be accepted by Republicans and Democrats. As Americans, we are no longer going to ask nicely... we will vote you OUT.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
  2. Pete

    Ever wonder why your economy is being dismantled and shipped to China and India? Its because your politicians dwell on these freakish policies of Abortion and Gay Rights and Birth Control! These are the serious and immediate issues facing a bankrupt country printing money like drunken sailors? C'mon Americans... wake up before you drag the rest of your normal friends down the toilet with you. What the hell is going on there?

    February 8, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
  3. mike harris

    The actual church pays no taxes. They have no right to say anything.

    February 8, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
    • Jim N.

      Democrats and Republicans need to stop terrorizing Medical Marijuana patients in America – or we will push back and take over this country. You take our POT, we'll take your BEER.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
    • Gregorio

      Mike Harris,

      The Church is the people, not the building. About 23% of the US population is Catholic. Do you want to silence that many Americans?

      February 8, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
    • Nancy

      I'm with you Jim, if Uncle Sam and local officials want to engage in discrimination and Nazi-like tactics against Americans – then it is our Duty to fight for Religious and Personal Freedom – God Bless the 10th Amendment and George Washington's Cannabis America.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
    • RAMBLE3144

      The govt has no right to infringe on anyone's religious beliefs, whether or not you pay taxes.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
  4. John N. Seattle, WA

    Let the religious zealots have their fun. We all know that these issues dont play well with the all-important independent voters. So when it comes time for a general election, putting a religious nutball like Santorum on the ticket will just ensure an Obama victory! Go Santorum!

    February 8, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
    • Brandon

      If there was a button. And you wanted to press it. But I knew that you would be punched in the face for pushing that button and I tried to warn you not to push it (even though you really really wanted to push it and thought it was stupid and irrational for a rule to exist that people who push this button get punched), wouldn't I be caring for you in warning you NOT to push that button?

      February 8, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      @Brandon

      Those kinds of analogies to justify preaching and legislating religion are completely irrelevant.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
  5. Henry

    What will the GOP do in 20 years when it becomes clear even to them that the public does not support their fundamentalism?

    February 8, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
  6. Willow

    Here's the thing. The news media tends to forget that not all conservatives are religious crazies, and not all conservatives are Republican. I'm Libertarian. Do I want Santorum for President? No. I'd rather have someone like Ron Paul.

    I want government cut. I want spending cut. But do I want to have organize religion rammed down my throat? No. This is what I disagree with Republicans on, and I know I'm not the only one.

    I am tired of being forced to vote 3rd party because Republicans won't be brave enough to run someone who isn't living in the Dark Ages when it comes to things like women's rights and gay rights.

    February 8, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
    • Willow

      *organized...apparently we're not allowed to edit for typos.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
    • Stentor

      See here's the thing, Libertarians are retards. Ron Paul believes in allowing the states in essence to create 50 different areas geographically with radically different rights. That's BS. Because if you're poor, but you're pro-choice and you live in an anti-choice state and you can't move, then why should you have any less rights than those who live in a pro-choice state? Libertarians cannot point to one viable example of a living breathing government that has ever worked that way. Liberty does not trump everything, and I want certain rights to be federally protected, and not subject to the whims of some mouth-breathing fundies who want to drag this country back to the 1750s, and re-make it into a Christian theocracy.
      So, this November:
      Say NO to Plutocracy,
      Say NO to Theocracy,
      Republicans,
      Wrong for Americans,
      Wrong for America.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
    • SupraPwn

      Personally I think the Republican party as it currently stands is essentially composed of two different viewpoints that cannot exist together.

      February 8, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
  7. The Kraken

    RELEASE ME!!!

    February 8, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
  8. William

    I find it funny how those on the christian side of the culture war seem to heavily support "Dr" Ron Paul. For further (and undeniable) evidence of this crook they call the "Dr", check out the facts on http://www.incogman.net

    February 8, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
    • John N. Seattle, WA

      Hey, Dr. Paul is great! Well, unless you are uninsurable currently...or depend on the Federal Government for welfare, rent assistance, medicare, medicade, or any of the hundreds of other CRUCIAL services they provide. But hey, dont let reality influence your decision to put a nutball on the podium! It sure hasnt stopped the other GOP candidates!

      February 8, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • Barbara Warren

      I respect and admire Ron Paul....except for the crazy parts. And there are a fair number of crazy parts.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
  9. boyamidumb

    Ok, we're all tired of hearing about gay this and gay that. WHO CARES.

    Wait – the only people who care are the New American Taliban and they are totally scary. If you think the Muslim Taliban are bad, wait until you see what these Christian Taliban are capable of doing to people. Remember the Inquisition. If you give these people power that will look like child's play in the great hall of torture and abuse history.

    February 8, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
  10. Drew

    Contraception? This is not even remotely a sin for the vast majority of Americans.

    Besides, it's like SHARIA LAW to force employees of Catholic run hospitals to live by the Holy See's laws and everyone else gets to live by American laws. Of course, the Catholic clergy would be trampling over the religious freedom of their non-Catholic employees.

    Why not let America's Roman Catholics vote for themselves as to whether or not contraception is a sin and force their clergy to abide by the vote? That would be very interesting.

    Additionally, Catholic clergy is CELIBATE. They really have no place telling anyone how to conduct their romantic lives considering they are ripe amateurs on the topic.

    I remember going to church-run schools as a kid. Contraception was one of the reasons why they told us that Catholics make up stuff that's really not in the Bible and that the Anti-Christ will come from the Holy See because of all the Rome references in Revelation.

    The culture war is a campaign instigated by social conservatives against mainstream Americans with the goal of forcing mainstream Americans to live by social conservatives' own religious laws.

    February 8, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
    • John N. Seattle, WA

      Isnt it funny that the people who shouldnt be allowed to reproduce are always the ones who oppose contraception?

      February 8, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
  11. Lenny Pincus

    Exodus 21:22-25 says: "When men strive together and hurt a woman with child so that there is a miscarriage and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her, shall be fined, according as the woman's husband shall lay upon him and he shall pay as the judges determine." Hmmm. A fine.

    February 8, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
  12. Dave

    Aaron, could not agree more. Great post.

    February 8, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
  13. rabridevi

    This is the Christian Taliban.

    February 8, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
  14. Truth Teller

    talk to the hand

    February 8, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
  15. Cthulhu

    I WILL SWALLOW THE ENTIRE WORLD WITH MY HATRED!!!!!!!

    February 8, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
    • H. P. Lovecraft

      Grow up.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
  16. MarkinFL

    Only one side has the Consti.tution on their side. They are welcome to their culture, their is no need for a war, but they are the aggressor in this. They seem to think that any attempt to stop them from forcing their beliefs on us is some kind of attack on their religious freedoms. Sorry, when someone breaks into my house and I defend myself. I am not the aggressor.

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

      Their problem is that everything use to be their house. 100 years ago being an atheist would get you tarred and feathered; 500 years ago it would have gotten you burned alive at the stake. There having a very hard time adjusting to a world where they have to share, don’t get special privileges and have to play on an even field.

      February 8, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
  17. Gregorio

    Compromise is like letting the southern states continue slavery 150 years ago. It's not much of a comprise if you're a slave. There can be no compromise on Catholic religious beliefs. The 54% of Catholics who voted for Obama in 2008 can't really say they're Catholic if they overlook abortion. Not a good Catholic anyway.

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

      I agree, there can be no compromise. We cannot alow the Catholic church to dictate our laws.

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

      Markin,

      God before country.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • Lenny Pincus

      And 98% of Catholic woman have used birth control. Get real.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
    • LinCA

      @Gregorio

      You said, "God before country."
      And therein lies the problem. When people place their imaginary friend ahead of real people and the society they live in they ruin it for everyone. Your god has no place in my life.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
    • Gregorio

      LinCA, I wonder who believes in fantasy more. Those who know logically that Someone started the universe or those who believe it just magically has always been here. Your death is a certainty, but are you headed to oblivion or is there more. Love can be analyzed and made to appear as biochemical processes. Does love really exist even though it can't be seen?

      February 8, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • Aezel

      "it just magically has always been here."

      Hmmm. Cite a scientific article published in a major peer-reviewed journal that makes that statement or shut up and go away.

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

      Aezel,

      Current scientific thought is that the universe began with a 'big bang' about 13-14 billion years ago. Did it just start on its own? Why tell me to shut up? Are you afraid of something? The truth perhaps?

      February 8, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
    • John N. Seattle, WA

      @Gregorio Which God? Personally, I place my faith in the Flying Spaghetti Monster...may you be touched by his noodly appendage!

      February 8, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
    • GodPot

      "Those who know logically that Someone started the universe"

      Don't pick on poor Gregorio just because he doesn't know the meaning of "logically".

      "Catholics who voted for Obama in 2008 can't really say they're Catholic if they overlook abortion."

      And those Round Earth Catholics weren't really Catholics during the period that the Church believed the world was flat?

      February 8, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
    • Gregorio

      Godpot,

      Does not something which exists have a beginning? Does not something or someone have to create it?

      February 8, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
    • Am I Missing Something?

      "Does not something which exists have a beginning? Does not something or someone have to create it?" Ah, are you trying to use your powers of Logic on me? Okay, if we take your premise as fact, then please explain your God. And if your logical premise breaks down during that explanation, then we cannot take your original premise as fact, which means how matter comes into existence is still unknown. We do have many clues and are researching even more as we speak (LHC – CERN) but to think in anyway that your premise of "If something exists it had to be created by someone, i.e God" is beyond simplistic and blatantly illogical.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
    • LinCA

      @Gregorio

      You said, "I wonder who believes in fantasy more. Those who know logically that Someone started the universe or those who believe it just magically has always been here."
      I don't believe the universe has "magically always been there". There is a lot of scientific evidence to suggest it started about 13.7 billion years ago. How exactly the "big bang" was set in motion, I don't know.

      Just because we don't know exactly how it all started is a piss poor excuse to just make shit up. You seem to claim that "someone" made the universe (presumably your god), and claim that to be logical. Accepting the preposterous notion without a shred of evidence in support, isn't logical or reasonable.

      You said, "Your death is a certainty, but are you headed to oblivion or is there more."
      I don't know if "there is more", but neither do you, or anyone else. You appear to assume that your particular version of the "afterlife" is the one that is true and somehow requires certain behaviors in life. Please do yourself a favor and look up "Pascal's wager". Because, unless you are pleasing every god ever invented by man, you'll end up losing. Considering that quite a few of these gods look very unfavorable upon those that worship others, even if they also worship them, your odds of escaping eternal damnation of some sort are zero.

      You said, "Love can be analyzed and made to appear as biochemical processes. Does love really exist even though it can't be seen?"
      What's your point? Are you suggesting that we should believe in everything that man has ever invented, yet we can't see? Do you believe in the Tooth Fairy, Pink Unicorns, Bob the Magical Blue Sock, Santa Claus, the Abominable Snowman or Loch Ness Monster?

      But, there is scientific evidence for the phenomenon we call "love", so yes, there is reason to believe it exists.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
    • Aezel

      "Does not something which exists have a beginning?" Nope, not necessarily. All you do is show a preschool level understanding of how space-time works.

      February 9, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
  18. Jim in Georgia

    George W. Bush was Pro-Life and had a majority in both houses of Congress yet did not offer a bill banning abortion. Why would anyone vote for someone who is an idiot in most respects but was pro-life?

    February 8, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
    • Gregorio

      I voted for George Bush twice and would do so again if he ran. Apparently enough people think like me Jim to have made him a two-term president.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
    • Lenny Pincus

      Bush was selected by a minority in 2000. He was given the presidency in a Supreme Court decision that rivaled Dred Scott for stupidity.

      February 8, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
    • Gregorio

      Lenny Pincus,

      The Democrats counted and recounted the votes in Florida and Gore came up short. The Supreme Court stepped in when they saw that the Democrats would keep counting until they got the answer they wanted. Gore lost fair and square!

      February 8, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
  19. Billy

    Was there a truce? Who declared it, O'Reilly?

    February 8, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
  20. ohreally

    Of course they are trying to turn this into a culture war. They can't argue foreign policy. They can't argue the economy, so what wedge issue do they always turn too? Typical GOP.

    February 8, 2012 at 7:14 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.