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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. Toto

    If frothy santorum becomes president, it will be because of the Gheys.

    February 8, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
  2. Mr Kraken

    I'M GETTING ACID REFLUX! RELEASE ME!!!

    February 8, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
  3. Kamil Zawadzki

    Reblogged this on Outspoken and commented:
    Cease-fire? What cease-fire?
    The GOP has been harping on all these things the whole way through.

    February 8, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
  4. Z

    These people on the right that think they are doing God's bidding are being misled. Plain and simple. Look at what the Bible teaches, treatment of the poor, abuses of the wealthy, paying a living wage..these things aren't 'gray' areas it's black and white. Yet these people that claim to understand the Bible, and force their beliefs do it out of complete ignorance. If you believe or not, the Bible does discuss how these people will be deceived. As a religious person, I can tell you the first place you find a demon is in a pulpit..same goes for politics, and I wish these people would stop being blinded by hate. The true evil is the one that convinces God's followers to turn on his teachings.

    February 8, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
    • JenniferUCD

      Amen.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
    • stohlat

      Scripture says that your name was written on the palm of God's hand even before you were even born, and that even if a mother forgets her child He will never forget you.

      The killing of an unborn child through abortion via abortifacients or any other means is an intrinsic evil, a sin that goes against God's plan for our salvation. It was that way 2,000 years ago for the early Christians and it remains that way today, no matter how many people approve and partake in it.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
    • No please ...

      stohlat's god is so stupid, that she doesn't know couples are making a plan to prevent pegnancy.

      February 8, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
    • JenniferUCD

      Hey stohlat, if you believe so hardcore in scripture, then don't have an abortion. This should be the end of the discussion since we don't live in a religious state. My problem is with people like you superimposing your beliefs on people like me who believe that until the brain is distinguished from the other cells making up the embyo, it does not possess enough human quality to warrant protection under the law. Who says you're right and I'm not? God? Then who's God? That's why we have freedom of religion so we can each live our live according to what we believe is right. ...

      February 8, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
  5. Ouranos

    IN THE BEGINNING WAS OURANOS!!! ALL LIFE FLOWS FROM MY HOLY SEED!!!!!

    February 8, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
    • Cronus

      More like cut from you.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
  6. Geoz

    The right raises these issues every four years to create an atmosphere of fear. they want voters to vote from fear. Fear of gays. Fear of anything progressive. It works too. They will continue.

    Soon though the issue of gay rights is going to be off the table. Society is progressing and this one will backfire.

    February 8, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
    • SupraPwn

      Muslims will fill the void, then the chinese.

      February 8, 2012 at 10:58 pm |
  7. Tim

    The CNN Belief section is a joke. Stop putting this tripe on the front page as if it's real news.

    February 8, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • TR6

      Get a grip. This is the BELIEF blog. What do you want them to do, print FACTS?

      February 8, 2012 at 9:20 pm |
  8. Jon

    Seriously, don't we all have more important things to worry about right now?

    February 8, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
  9. ja-coffalotte

    hahahahhahha, being against women and gays guarantees the GOP demise, good riddance faux christians

    February 8, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
  10. Ahura Mazda

    WORSHIP ME IN MY FIRE TEMPLES OR BE DESTROYED!!!!

    February 8, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
    • Ahriman

      No

      February 8, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
  11. Bart

    I support a church's rights to follow what they believe in without interference from the government. Problem is that some church's have entered into the business world, by doing so they have obligations to their employees and if they want to remain in the business world they have to live up to those obligations. So, go back to being a church and be left alone to practice religion as you desire or remain in the business world and learn to follow the laws that protect employees. Your choice.

    February 8, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
    • Geoz

      Same with religious colleges. If you want financial aid, you have to guarantee equality, as defined by uncle sam. Don't like it? don't take the money.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
  12. Mr Kraken

    RELEASE ME SO I CAN CLUTCH CHRISTIANS IN MY PREHENSILE CLAW-FIN AND SHOVE THEM INTO MY RAVENOUS MAW!!!!

    February 8, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
    • Baldr

      Shut up down there.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • sharoom

      I CONCUR! RELEASE THE KRAKEN!

      February 8, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • Mr Kraken

      MY BILE IS RISING! MY STOMACH GROWLS FOR CHRISTIAN FLESH! RELEASE ME!!!

      February 8, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
  13. mike harris

    The catholic church don't need birth control. Little boys can't get pregnant.

    February 8, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
    • Archangel Michael

      Wow, another Catholic joke. You are sooo creative and funny....

      February 8, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
    • mike harris

      That was no joke it's fact. I even seen the priests trying to cover it up.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
    • mike harris

      the bishops and the pope

      February 8, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
  14. Glenn

    Economically meaningless debates like these are hurting our country. If it doesn't affect my health or wealth I don't care.

    February 8, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
    • JenniferUCD

      So true. These culture issues are such distractions. But thats what the right wants because they are losing in the economic and heath care arenas.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
  15. Andrew

    Using Jesus for hate will cook your ass in Hell, Rick.

    February 8, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
  16. Leviathan

    MY CHAOS RULES FROM THE DEEP!!!

    February 8, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
    • Behemoth

      That's why we take a dump in your hole.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
  17. David

    Dude,

    Have you not been paying attention? Tea Party is just a rebranding of the same old core of the Republican Party. When Boehner and company gained control of the House, the idea that "it's all about jobs" was complete rhetoric. The first few bill that passed were about abortion and much since has been symbolic legislation. Many of the state legislatures were passing culture war bills, including bills against gay marriage and for even tighter restrictions on abortion.

    The talk of the culture war issues might have been secondary to the lines about the economy, but when you look at what they have actually done, little of the work has been related to the economy and most has been items important to social conservatives.

    Nothing has changed except how the Republicans have marketed themselves, until now. Now the veil comes off.

    February 8, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
  18. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things.

    February 8, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
    • sharoom

      My favorite line is: "Prayer makes you hoard cats."

      February 8, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
    • Chach

      Prove it. You can't. I CAN prove that prayer doesn't work. Next time you or one of your family needs medical attention for a life threatening illness or injury, take them to a church instead of a doctor and pray that they live. Or, take them to a doctor, let them be treated by medicine derived and developed by SCIENCE not prayers and see which gets you actual results. Pray for a limb to grow back. Pray for rain. Pray for your favorite christian football player to win. Oops! The tiny fraction of times that prayer appears to work is purely coincidental. Either that, or god ignores a sh1tload of prayers and whole lot of suffering.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • Prayer is not healthy for children and other living things

      Prayer takes people away from actually working on real solutions to their problems.
      Prayer wears out your clothes prematurely.
      Prayer contributes to global warming through excess CO2 emissions.
      Prayer fucks up your knees and your neck and your back.
      Prayer can cause heart attacks, especially among the elderly.
      Prayer reveals how stupid you are to the world.
      Prayer exposes your backside to pervert priests.
      Prayer prevents you from getting badly needed exercise.
      Prayer makes you post really stupid shit.
      Prayer makes you hoard cats.
      Prayer makes you smell like shitty kitty litter and leads you on to harder drugs.
      Prayer makes you think doilies are exciting.
      Prayer wastes time.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
    • 21k

      prayers didn't get god to stop hitler, so i guess even that amount of butchery is still considered under "gawd works in strange ways"

      February 8, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
    • JenniferUCD

      The only thing prayer changes is your outlook on your problems. Perhaps you will be a little less pessimistic. Perhaps a little more forgiving. But the only thing that is guaranteed to work everytime is getting off your knees and putting your beliefs into action. The problem with prayer is that too many believers think they are finished on Sunday, begging for forgiveness for the the sins they comit Monday through Saturday and never trully working to be a decent human the rest of the time. All religions teach us to be kind, giving, and tolerant. Yet most athiests turn away from God because they are fed up with the hypocrisy displayed by believers. I not an athiest, but I truly understand why so many of them think religion is BS.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
  19. Bhawk

    Just how do you when a culture war. You issue the most restrictive laws on the behavior of mankind. One has to control the mind of other men. No one forces Cons to have abortion or believe there is no supreme being. One of the things that bothers me most about the Cons culture was is their hate of the poor and their acceptence of anything goes in business. Jesus only showed anger against the money changers at the Temple. He even restored the ear of the solider who came to take him to death. Mr. Santorum is beyond the normal Conservative. Just what will he do–know one really knows.

    February 8, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
  20. Hubbard

    what ever happened to "Separation of Church and State"

    February 8, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
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About this blog

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.