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My Take: Obama pledged to dial down the culture wars. What happened?
The author says that Obama has let down antiabortion Democrats.
September 6th, 2012
11:30 AM ET

My Take: Obama pledged to dial down the culture wars. What happened?

Editor's note: Michael Sean Winters writes the blog "Distinctly Catholic" for the National Catholic Reporter and is the author of "God's Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right."

By Michael Sean Winters, Special to CNN

Four years ago, anti-abortion Sen. Robert Casey addressed the Democratic National Convention.

“Barack Obama and I have an honest disagreement on the issue of abortion,” he said. “But the fact that I am speaking here tonight is testament to Barack’s ability to show respect to the views of people who may disagree with him… he’ll pursue the common good by seeking common ground rather than trying to divide us.”

The next day, speaking to fellow anti-abortion Democrats, we all admitted we had been moved to tears by Casey’s speech.

As candidate and as president, Obama promised he would try and heal the culture wars.

”Let's honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion and draft a sensible conscience clause,” he said in 2009 at the University of Notre Dame, a Catholic university, “and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women.”

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He retained the White House faith-based office President George W. Bush had created and even increased funding for religiously affiliated charities.

This week in Charlotte, Nancy Keenan, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, addressed the convention. Nearly all the politicians who spoke celebrated the party’s commitment to legalized abortion, offering some of the biggest applause lines of the convention.

Anti-abortion Democrats were crying again, but they were not tears of pride.

It has been clear for some time that President Obama’s campaign has concluded that they were never going to win the same levels of support among moderate, white, working class voters that propelled him to victory in 2008. Whereas in 2008, he was seen as a remedy for the bad economy, Obama is now seen as the cause, or at least not as the cure.

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So the president is re-litigating the culture wars he promised to salve in 2008. It’s one way to keep the Democrats from having to talk about the 8.3% unemployment rate.

And, so while one expected the Republican Party to be engaged in the culture wars, instead it is the Democrats, feeding off President Obama’s decision to bait-and- switch, that are stoking those wars.

Last November, President Obama met with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference. Obama said that he understood the Catholic Church’s concerns about a new White House contraception mandate that requires employers to provide no-cost contraception coverage to virtually all their employees. That includes those who work at church-run organizations like schools and hospitals.

Fixing this problem wouldn’t have been difficult. Obama could have expanded the exemption and allowed women who work at Catholic institutions to get contraception coverage through the exchanges set up by the Affordable Care Act.

Instead, the president announced there would be no change in the conscience exemption.

What happened? Women’s groups besieged the White House with complaints and the Obama campaign needed the fundraising support of pro-choice groups like Emily’s List. And so, Obama picked a thoroughly unnecessary fight with the Catholic Church.

The HHS mandate was the straw that broke the Church camel’s back.

But Obama’s Justice Department had earlier entered a Supreme Court brief arguing that churches had no special protection in the hiring and firing of their pastors, only to have the Supreme Court unanimously reject their view.

Then Obama’s Health and Human Services Department denied a grant to the bishops’ conference program to help the victims of human trafficking because church agencies would not provide or promote contraception, even though the program got high marks from HHS staff.

This week’s convention speeches are more evidence that Obama is still pursuing a strategy of exciting the base and suburban women and forgetting about culturally conservative Democrats.

“[The president] believes that women are more than capable of making our own choices about our bodies and our health care,” first lady Michelle Obama said to thunderous applause.

It is possible the strategy will work.

For every culturally conservative Catholic voter Obama loses in western Pennsylvania, he may pick up the vote of an affluent, politically unaffiliated, nonchurch-going and decidedly pro-abortion rights woman in the Philadelphia suburbs. She might be in a position to write a check to his campaign as well.

And it’s true that some Republican actions have made it easier for the Democrats to rally the pro-abortion rights faithful.

In the key swing state of Virginia, the Republican legislature and governor passed a law requiring women to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound before getting an abortion, leading many centrist voters to conclude that it is the Republicans, not the Democrats, who are extreme on abortion. In Congress, Republicans tried to cut funding for Planned Parenthood.

What may work for Obama, however, will prove disastrous for his party.

It is difficult to see how Democrats will ever reclaim the House unless they win back the seats once held by anti-abortion Democrats like Kathy Dahlkemper of Pennsylvania , Bart Stupak of Michigan and Steve Dreihaus of Ohio. All three of those seats went Republican after anti-abortion groups targeted them because of their vote in favor of health care reform.

Branding the party as rigidly pro-choice, and even refusing to include “big tent” language on abortion in the party platform, will not help Democrats reclaim the House, so we can all look forward to more culture wars in the future.

Abortion rights groups and the Obama campaign may have cut off their nose to spite their face by reigniting the culture wars. No one looks forward to four more years of squabbles between a GOP-led House and President Obama.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Sean Winters.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: 2012 Election • Abortion • Barack Obama • Politics

soundoff (495 Responses)
  1. Josh H

    Michael Sean Winters, SORRY, THERE IS NO FAIRY-MAN IN THE SKY. Humans need to work together to solve their own problems and stop leaning on the mental-crutch of religion.

    September 7, 2012 at 1:17 am |
    • WALLACE

      I totally agree: There is no FAIRY MAN in the sky; HOWEVER, there IS an Almighty God and Creator of EVERYTHING visible and invisible, and one day WE WILL ALL have to face Him! I pray we will be ready!! Jesus Christ IS Lord!! – Ya may not believe in gravity, but trust me, don't step off a tall building. Just because you CANNOT SEE IT with your HUMAN EYES, doesn't mean it's not real. Ever see the wind? Ever see what the wind can do? Do not be fooled; God has NOTHING to prove; it's already ALL AROUND US!!

      September 7, 2012 at 1:32 am |
    • Rob

      Get religion out of politics. Hearing god this and god that makes me want to vomit. Take your imaginary BS elsewhere and shut up.

      September 7, 2012 at 1:36 am |
    • blood_wraith

      god SHOULD have nothing to do with politics, but that doesn't change the fact that religion tends to have a major effect on someones morals and thus will be a huge influence on stances and voting.

      im anti-abortion. not because God said that abortion is bad, but because as a Catholic i was raised to think that all life is precious and i think that flushing out a baby is wrong

      September 7, 2012 at 2:42 am |
  2. Polli

    I think they missed the point here. He siad he would have to win back a few people in order to win...frankly Mister, he has to win millions of women over to win. just another way you slight women. As if our Votes dodn't matter to the"big Campaingers..." Such a slight of the Politicians over the people. Make note...it seems rather castrating.

    September 7, 2012 at 1:14 am |
  3. pimpson

    You baby killers are deranged.

    September 7, 2012 at 1:11 am |
  4. Max Powers

    How dare the President fight back against the religious zealots!

    September 7, 2012 at 12:54 am |
    • WALLACE

      Yes! Especially when the WOLF "claims" to be a SHEEP! Amazing, how BLIND everyone is, isn't it?

      September 7, 2012 at 1:34 am |
  5. Tim

    "That includes those who work at church-run organizations like schools and hospitals."
    I don't care if a business is run by a religious organization or not; when it is run as a for-profit business, it is subject to the same rules and obligations as any other business, regardless of the beliefs of its parent religious organization. If a law is made requiring coverage for contraception by businesses, "oh but we're a religiously-run business" is not an excuse for exemption. If religious organizations don't want to be subject to the requirements to which businesses are subject, then they should stick to being churches/synagogues/mosques/temples/whatever and not engaging in common business.

    I live in an area in which all of the nearby hospitals are catholic hospitals. If I were a female in the medical care industry, I would have no financially realistic choice but to work for one of them.

    September 7, 2012 at 12:32 am |
    • shaun

      my friend, nearly all of those hospitals and schools are not for-profit organizations, they are non-profit. And separation of church and state works both ways, keep the church out of the state and the state out of the churches( and by association, the organizations funded by churches)

      September 7, 2012 at 12:51 am |
    • BostonBob

      Shaun – so if the churches decided that slavery was ok would the government have no right to get into the church's business?

      Sorry but I and most other Americans are with Tim – the church shouldn't get exemptions when it discriminates against women.

      September 7, 2012 at 1:07 am |
    • blood_wraith

      i've been wondering this for a while, but how is this discrimination against women? the church isn't saying that women shouldn't get free contraceptives, they're saying that NO ONE should get/use contraceptives. they'd have the same stance for men but theres not even a law for men to get free condoms. hows that for discriminating

      September 7, 2012 at 2:47 am |
    • Ram

      @Boston Bob-

      .....except that wasn't Tim's point.

      Tim's point was that a for-profit business is subject to government regulation. These aren't for-profit businesses, so Tim's whole point is moot.

      September 7, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • Chelle

      Non-profit??? I would like to see the balance sheets on those hospitals then!

      September 7, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  6. tuvia

    ---

    ----------

    MEDIA RELEASE:
    JERUSALEM, ISRAEL
    ---------–
    B"H
    MEDIA RELEASE:
    JERUSALEM, ISRAEL

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=947by3X6_RU

    September 7, 2012 at 12:10 am |
    • Mimi

      Whatever.

      September 7, 2012 at 12:26 am |
    • Jarvis Jasper

      This Rabi guy is crazy they are bulldozing people down... Ugh what does this have to do with the abortion article?
      http://www.democracynow.org/2012/8/28/rachel_corries_parents_denounce_israeli_military

      September 7, 2012 at 12:44 am |
    • hanny

      ok, Rabbi we get your pain and opinions. But again, remember Obama is an American president first and world leader second. I don't think him or any other president will blatantly take sides between Israel and Palestine conflict yet. As we know well, both sides are constantly fighting and citizens get killed on both sides. So, my point is you need to calm down and consider peaceful mediation coz Palestinians feel the same way you do!

      September 7, 2012 at 1:17 am |
    • WALLACE

      G_D BLESS YOU!!!

      September 7, 2012 at 1:38 am |
    • mpouxesas

      It's crazy... I is like Israel blaming palestinians for ...their occupation by Israel!!!

      September 7, 2012 at 7:58 am |
  7. Alex

    Please, Mister Man, tell us more about what matters to women.

    September 7, 2012 at 12:07 am |
  8. albie

    Down with religion in all its forms!!

    September 6, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
    • Socrates

      Absolutely. Religion was created to control and scared people. If anybody have seen God please take a picture, we are dying to see him.

      September 7, 2012 at 12:03 am |
    • ken

      hear hear a voice of reason

      September 7, 2012 at 1:01 am |
    • Silence Dogood

      And how do you plan to achieve this? Spoken like a true despot.

      September 7, 2012 at 1:08 am |
  9. Mama for Obama

    No man should be allowed to dictate to any woman what she can or cannot do with her body given to her by GOD. This man should be seen and not heard! When he gives birth – let me know. It is simply none of his business. A few cells or a speck of tissue is NOT a human being and is NOT worth more than the mother's life.!

    September 6, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
    • Tony

      Considering it takes a man ( and a woman) to commit the act of making a baby, I think he has 1/2 a say, considering he has to pay at least half of the raising of a child, right?

      September 7, 2012 at 12:03 am |
    • mary

      Aren't we all just a few cells?...

      September 7, 2012 at 12:05 am |
    • WALLACE

      God knew that child before the foundation of the World. Where were you? Did You give LIFE? No, you ripped it out of your womb and tossed it in the garbage like garbage. God Himself knitted YOU in YOUR Mothers womb; I am sorry that you feel as if you were somehow cheated by NOT having your brains sucked out at full term; but the fact still remains: You are NOT of your own, YOU belong to your Creator, The Lord God Almighty to whom you will one day face and give account, as we ALL shall. May God have mercy on your soul and OPEN YOUR EYES before it is too late... This is my prayer for you, in Jesus' Holy Name. AMEN!

      September 7, 2012 at 1:46 am |
    • Ram

      Excellent point.

      I assume you oppose the HHS mandate, as it represents government involvement in your reproductive rights by dictating the dispensing of it and who pays for it.

      September 7, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  10. LOYAL NORTHERN DEMOCRAT

    Obama has said that he will not rest until the symbol of the Democratic Party is a Brazil Nut. I am not quite sure what that means.

    September 6, 2012 at 11:44 pm |
    • Brian in TX

      That's because Brazil's gasoline is made of renewable sugar cane. That's alll.

      September 7, 2012 at 12:35 am |
  11. Grace

    Setting up this argument as a binary choice is ridiculous. If it were a simple choice between "everybody must have an abortion" and "nobody can have an abortion", then maybe the binary would work. But that's not the context.

    Anti-abortion activists (who are increasingly anti-contraception as well) are arguing for the second choice up there, "nobody can have an abortion". But the other side? The other side is arguing "You can either have an abortion or NOT have an abortion, and you should be supported either way". CHOICE. That is why the polls that frame this as a pro-/anti- issue are useless: a woman can personally choose to never have an abortion for moral or religious grounds, while simultaneously supporting her neighbor's choice.

    I am one of these women who is personally anti-abortion. But I recognize that my own choice may not be the choice of another, and so I support CHOICE in reproductive rights. So I identify generally as pro-choice.

    (As a sidenote, the contraception thing is insane. Viagra is covered by insurance, yet contraception is not. Bull. Religions already enjoy a tax-exempt status, I'm not prepared to let them start actively screwing with their congregation's health choices. You're part of this secular society. Deal.)

    September 6, 2012 at 11:35 pm |
    • notea4me

      Yes, why can't other people see it this way. Why do some people need to shove their religious beliefs down other peoples throats?

      September 6, 2012 at 11:46 pm |
    • mary

      The key you are missing is that to those opposed to abortion, it is seen as equivalent to murder. So your viewpoint would by extension be "you can choose to murder someone or you can choose not to and still support the choice of another." Everything in life is a choice and we all make choices. That doesn't make every choice moral. Think of the ensuing chaos if morality was always in the eye of the beholder.

      September 7, 2012 at 12:09 am |
  12. TommyTT

    A one-sided article with, again, religious aggressors posing as victims.

    September 6, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
    • Jeremy

      DING DING DING DING DING!

      I concur.

      September 6, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
    • notea4me

      I also concur. Thanks

      September 6, 2012 at 11:47 pm |
    • tipsana

      Hear! Hear! Most voters care about a broad range of issues, and do a party does not lose or carry its members on a single issue.

      September 7, 2012 at 12:01 am |
  13. charles_darwin

    Time has come to get faith out of the office of politics!
    Leave it in church where it belongs.

    September 6, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
  14. Steve S

    There's a reason our Founding Fathers decided for a distinct separation of Church and State.
    In Iran, you have separate State and Islamic Courts.
    The Taliban turned the clock back 800 years in Afghanistan.
    Don't be fooled!'
    The America Taliban (Religious Fundamentalists) would send women back to second-class citizen status, and bring back their own version of the Dark Ages.

    September 6, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
    • spk

      Agreed This article is so much crap
      The culture war, if there is one, falls squarely into the laps of the GOP
      who have focused on these issues throughout the campaign

      September 6, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
  15. Smako

    The last speech given by Martin Luther King Jr addressed the culture war. He said that the slave holders of ancient times kept control of their slaves by keeping them bickering among each other. Sound Familiar? You only get one more sun set if you say something like that.

    September 6, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
  16. McFartney

    C'mon Jason, there's no room for common sense here.

    September 6, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
  17. It's time to realize

    That there are always going to be differences between people. Talking in circles does nothing. It's the same thing to try to negotiate with countries in the middle east about nuclear weapons. They have their beliefs and we have ours. They are not going to just roll over some morning and say "gee, I guess we WILL disarm". It is incredibly unfortunate but human nature dictates that the powerful will control the world – it can be no other way.

    September 6, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
  18. tffl

    The problem with the "anti-abortion" forces is that _they_ don't want a big tent – they don't accept that many others don't agree with their views, and believe only their views should be allowed to prevail. The "pro-choice" groups have no interest in forcing anyone to have an abortion – they are perfectly happy to allow those who don't want an abortion to not have one. That isn't good enough for the antis – they not only don't want to have abortions, they want to deny them to others that don't believe as they do. Further, the pro-choice groups have (perhaps somewhat reluctantly) accepted some restrictions on abortion, in the interest of finding common ground. The anti-abortion groups, rather than accepting that and making some concessions of their own, reject the very idea of compromise, and use any concessions by the other side as a victory and a moving of the goalposts for "their" side – no interest in a common ground at all, unless that common ground is a total acceptance of their views. Well sorry – until there is acknowledgement by the anti-abortion forces that their religious views don't apply to everyone, that other people can have valid positions that disagree with them, that laws in this country exist for everyone and cannot be written to match only their religion, and that "compromise" actually means "give and take", not just "take", then they are going to have to deal with the fact that the other side is going to be as intransigent as they have been.

    September 6, 2012 at 11:07 pm |
    • Dick46

      What I would also include is the idea that the wealthy can have their abortions even if outlawed here. They can hop on a plane to a country where its lawful and done! Not so the poor.

      September 6, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
    • lawrensb

      "The "pro-choice" groups have no interest in forcing anyone to have an abortion" – They just want you to pay of everyone who chooses to have an abortion.

      September 6, 2012 at 11:31 pm |
    • TommyTT

      lawrensb, your point is poorly argued. Pro-choice people aren't trying to make you pay for abortions. The President's actions don't make you pay for abortions. That's something you're afraid of, not something that's actually happening. Again, religious aggressors posing as victims.

      September 6, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
  19. byeobama1

    If obama is so pro American and for the poor and middle class why wont he let the pipeline go thru America so our gas, food,etc does not cost so much and also bring in lots of jobs.
    He talks, but thats it...just talk, He wont tell you that he has to reward those who gave him all the $ that got him in office.
    Tonight he is praising America...went he went overseas, he apologized for America.
    They pretend to be like the rest of us...they definitely are not.
    Perhaps when they dated he had a car at one time that was a piece of junk..now they each take a different airplane to a destination at taxpayers expense.
    Michelle should have paid less for that 6-8 thousand jacket she wore in London....Shame!!!

    September 6, 2012 at 11:02 pm |
    • underthefish

      "If obama is so pro American and for the poor and middle class why wont he let the pipeline go thru America so our gas, food,etc does not cost so much and also bring in lots of jobs."
      Well, the gas is being exported, but I didn't realize that pipeline was going to be delivering food, and "etc" to the US. I think I'll pass on the gas-covered food.

      September 6, 2012 at 11:25 pm |
    • Jeremy

      One of the GOPs finest, once again not understanding the issue that seems to be upsetting them. I would be angry and bitter if I didn't understand legislation or the reason they are approved or rejected. Please, you clearly have internet. Google. You are definitely not like me.

      September 6, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
    • daninsac

      You're obviously about every 'issue' you've raised – all of which are laughable. It's just a thought, but perhaps you might take what Druggie Limbaugh says with a grain of salt.

      September 7, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  20. Jason

    Ending the culture war is on all of us. It is not something the president, or any individual can do. We ALL need to open reasoned dialogues about the issues, and avoid inflammatory and inciting positions and expositions.

    September 6, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
    • Argonaut

      How do you get religious people to have reasoned dialogues when they openly despise reason?

      September 6, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
    • c

      @argonaut

      You don't seem to be so high on the reason meter yourself. Until people stop making prejudiced comments like that, no one will have a reasoned discussion.

      September 7, 2012 at 12:35 am |
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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.