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. sonny chapman

    I guess Dems. got tired of turning the other cheek after being slapped in the face so many times by the Catholic Church. Forgive us our sin Father. Or maybe, we are being AS forgiving as the Catholic Church has been toward us.

    September 7, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  2. Ram

    This piece is fairly typical. From a Catholic perspective, the author and many like him were willing to forego their whatever misgivings they may have had about Pres. Obama's record on abortion rights and voted for him as he promised to champion social issues. Many carried water for him on the health care legislation (Sr. Keehan most notably), and the President hit the lecture circuit at ND, Georgetown, etc. making the same conciliatory statements that Sen. Casey spoke of in 2008.

    Once the health care bill became law, the administration didn't need to assuage the Catholics anymore, thus the HHS mandate.

    I'm sure the author is a nice man, but the term "useful idiots" comes to mind. You knew what the man stood for his whole public life, so registering shock or dismay at this point is disingenuous at best.

    September 7, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  3. NOBama 2012

    @ jrm03063 – How is a pregnancy unexpected? According to scripture (which the Dems were so keen on emphisising, only after they got called out on the God issue) the immaculate conception only happened once! Why should my tax dollars go to support someone who didn't have the common sense not to bring a child into the world when they knew damn well they couldn't afford them. Furthermore, why should my tax dollars go towards paying for contraception when most of the people taking it do so not for a medical condition but so they can "have a good time" and not worry about the consequences...and why should my tax dollars be forced to pay for the murder of the innocent...you bleading heart liberals talk of giving people a chance and opportunity but you deny chance and oportunity to the weakest of all, unborn children.

    September 7, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • sonny chapman

      I saw a picture of Jesu at a Catholic Church recently. He had a bleeding heart. Thanks for the compliment.

      September 7, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • Lou

      I feel sorry for you

      September 7, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • Kathleen O'Connell

      You had better check scripture, Mr. Nobama, I believe you'll find there is no mention there of an immaculate conception, that docrine comes from our Catholic tradition. And it has nothing to do with Jesus' conception, it has to do with Mary's, she was born free of sin or the propensity to evil according to our teaching.

      September 7, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • James PDX

      A rock is innocent too, and has just as much feeling and thought as an embryo. Also, how is a r a p e induced pregnancy not unexpected? How about people who dutifully use contraception and still get pregnant? I have a little sister today because the family doctor told both my mother and father that neither of them were physically capable of making any more children – and was wrong. Try to actually think, instead of blindly following an idea and only considering thngs which support that idea.

      September 7, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • NOBama 2012

      Fair enough, my mistake Kathleen...I didn't phrase that part correctly. However, you failed to answer my question of how pregnancy is unexpected and the quesitons regarding my tax dollars?

      September 7, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  4. Bob R., Maryland

    Pro-life my butt! Life cannot exist without the ability to breath. All living people breath! Mothers can breath; unborn fetuses cannot. Fertilized eggs are not life as we living know it!

    September 7, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • Ram

      Cells are living.


      September 7, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • pam

      So if a baby is born premature and cannot breathe on their own, we should just let them die?

      September 7, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • James PDX

      Bob, that was a terrible post. Totally indefensible – and I approve of 1st trimester abortions.

      September 7, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  5. Manuel J.

    I find it comical how all the pro-choice so-called men supposedly rally around women around this topic. I think their rallying has more to do with dipping their wick into the well and not having to support the woman and child.

    In short, pro-choice men are literally in it for a piece of _$$ and nothing more!!!

    September 7, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • Voxovreeson

      That line of reasoning must leave you very proud of how you came to be on this earth....

      September 7, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  6. An Angel

    Of course women should have the right to choose whether or not they want to remove a fetus from their body. We all should be given the right to choose what we want to do. And, we should all be given the same opportunity to choose our consequence! Many biologists seem to believe that the blastula is indeed a new life at the time of fertilization. Is it independant? Well.... we all know that "independance" is a relative term. We all depend on something to live. So.... is the fetus sentient? Well, some adults do not possess any awareness, yet, it is illegal to "let them go" carte blanche. So....In our technical world, we should have a method to preserve the embryo removed, rather than "abort" the life of the embryo. That embryo could be nurtured.... perhaps in a "tube" condition, and permitted to be developed into a full child phase, all ready for adoption or sale as the case may be....... to others who want them. Problem solved! We can do that today, now, already... we have the capability, so, abortion is a mute point.

    September 7, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • James PDX

      I'm so tired of the life vs person argument. Life doesn't begin at conception as, obviously, both the egg and sperm which create the embryo are already alive when they merge. Therefore, life begins BEFORE contraception. However, it is not a person upon fertilization. It has no internal organs, no brain, it does not think, it does not feel, it knows no loss or regret, it does not recite Shakespeare, it is not a person.

      September 7, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • Ram


      Sounds like the same argument you banged Bob on.

      It's alive and it's not anything but human. It doesn't start off as non-human and morph to human at point X.

      September 7, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • Ram


      Your post will come as a shock to all expectant mothers.

      Most, if not all, expectant mothers believe that they will give birth to a person.

      September 7, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  7. John

    Speaking of wars, remember when Bush was President? Remember the daily media tally on every news show of the number of dead U.S. service men and women? Remember the headlines every time that number passed the next 1,000 benchmark?

    Obama has been President for 1/3 the time we've been in Afghanistan but we've suffered 2/3 of our total casualties there while he's been President. Where is the daily tally? Obama said he wants us to live in an America where we all play by the same rules. Where is the daily tally? The Democrats say the war in Afghanistan was neglected before Obama fixed that. Where is the daily tally?

    Come on NEWS sources. How about a little fair play? Tell it like it is.

    September 7, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • James PDX

      To be fair, shouldn't we only count the deaths from the wars Obama started? That would mean we're a long way off from the first 1000.

      September 7, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  8. tuvia


    'Germany met with Munich terrorists after attack'


    The Land of Israel is the Promised Land given to our forefathers Abraham Isaac and Jacob and is given to us, their seed, as an everlasting Inheritance

    September 7, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • old ben

      Jonathan Pollard is a highly unstable traitor to the U.S. Keep him where he is. A danger to everyone.

      September 7, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  9. Jeff Seders

    Finally, an actual thinking author on CNN. I almost fell over.

    September 7, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • James PDX

      Where? Could you please point them out to me?

      September 7, 2012 at 10:06 am |

    Another white boy trying to run women's lives...bugger off,mate!

    September 7, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  11. Sniffit

    I'm now at the point where all I hear when the religious right starts yapping is the teacher from the Peanuts/Charlie Brown. Nobody wants YOUR freekin religion in OUR government. We don't want YOUR god in OUR lives. We don't need to be saved, thank you very much. We don't need to be told what to believe and why your dogma and doctrine should be at the top of our beliefs list. We don't need to be told how to behave and why your dogma and doctrine should guide our behavior, whether we believe in it or not. We don't need you misinterpreting the 1st Amendment at every turn, teaching our children the wrong understanding of the separation of church and state and attempting to rewrite historical record to justify you misrepresentations and need for control. And above all, we don't need you trying to codify your self-declared moral and spritual superiority into our secular laws. Understand this: you have every right to be a fundamentalist religio-fascist jackhole and I have every right...nay, obligation...to oppose you in it.

    September 7, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      Very well stated!

      September 7, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • Lou


      September 7, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • ElmerGantry

      Well stated!

      September 7, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  12. Joshua Ludd

    What happened? Republicans reviving the culture wars is what happened. They were the ones elected on a platform of jobs jobs jobs and who then made their first bill about abortion as well as bill after bill after bill thereafter. They are the ones who are trying to curtail access to birth control. They are the ones trying to defund planned parenthood, despite the fact that the vast majority of what that organization does is women's healthcare for poor women nationwide. Also, quite funny how you NEVER hear mainstream media call something a politician says a lie... but CNN sure made certain to make the headline for this "Obama's LIE".

    September 7, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  13. James PDX

    FACT: Christians/Mormons/Jews all claim that God once flooded the world, effectively killing every person on the planet except Noah's family. That means they think that God is the biggest murderer on the planet, the biggest baby killer on the planet, and that he once perpetrated a 100% kill rate against all fetuses making him the #1 abortionist of all time. Yet they balk at allowing a woman to exercise her God given freewill to kill one clump of unthinking and unfeeling cells that is growing inside her own body. How is that in the least ratonal?

    September 7, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  14. Ed

    A rant about Obama igniting culture wars citing primarily reduced willingness to compromising over abortion. Yet nowhere does the article mention the Right-to-Life Amendment proposed by the GOP platform that would effectively outlaw abortion in all cases and greatly diminishish the options for invitro vertilization. Why is it that these folks always take an extreme position and then blame the other side for inflexability? Arrogance.

    September 7, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  15. Michael in Boston

    "I believe that since Roe v. Wade has been the law for 20 years we should sustain and support it." ~ Mitt Rommney

    September 7, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  16. James PDX

    Opinion pieces in a nutshell:

    Author is religious/conservative/Republican – Obama is a liar, an awful person, and terrible for this country. Romney is a great businessman.

    Author is Atheist/liberal/Democrat – Romney is a liar, an awful person, and terrible for this country. Obama is in touch with the common man.

    Sadly, you can just read the short bio of the author at the top and know the gist of the article and save yourself the time of reading it. These 2 awful parties have us so divided that there is no moderate voice left anymore.

    September 7, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • Joshua Ludd

      The hell are you talking about, James? The Democrats are ANYTHING but non-moderate. They are ANYTHING but radical. I know the Right keeps telling us how radical they are... but they aren't. Health reform? Welcome to 19th century Germany. Yep.. that is when Germany's similar health care program was started.

      September 7, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • An Angel

      You would think they could color code that so we can just look at the background color and determine the slant!

      September 7, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • James PDX

      Joshua, I'll give you that, at this time in history, the Republicans are the greater of 2 evils. But the Democrats have had their turns in that role, too. Perhaps we should wake up and vote them both out of power. if only we weren't such complacent sheep that this could be accomplished.

      September 7, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • Ram

      The author of this piece is a Democrat.

      Now what?

      September 7, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • James PDX

      The author of this piece VOTED Democrat. Not the same thing. He just proved he's an exceptionally gullible conservative.

      September 7, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • Ram

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

      "fellow anti-abortion Democrats", as in he's one and he was speaking to others.

      September 7, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Ram

      And yes, I also believe the author is/was is a gullible fool.

      He believed the President's promises, ignored his clear voting record on the matter and now is registering shock and dismay that a politican lied to him.

      September 7, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  17. Chuck

    Roe v. Wade is established law, however there has been a constant effort over the past two years by the Republicans to make access to abortion more difficult. In a "war," (Michael Winters' word, not mine) if one side stops fighting but the other doesn't, the side that keeps fighting is probably going to win. So as long as the Republicans are fighting a "war" on abortion, I hope President Obama and the Democrats fight as hard as they can against them.

    September 7, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • marcindc

      Slavery was also established law. Abhorrent immoral policies always are on the losing side if there are people willing to fight against them , regardless of the nice little names the abortion mills like to use like “choice”.

      September 7, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • James PDX

      marcindc, do you mean like laws prohibiting gay marriage?

      September 7, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  18. BADGUY

    No one denies that abortion IS a traumatic procedure and, whenever possible, it should be avoided. BUT...we've TRIED making it "illegal" and we found that a women's fear of having a child in or out of wedlock will often drive them to "back-alley" abortionists...with terrible results. That's one of the reasons abortion is legal today. Also, another reason, is the question of a women's right to control what goes in and what comes out of her body. For BOTH of these reasons, abortion is and should be kept legal. I think the Catholic Church should concentrate on LIMITING the number of abortions through instruction of its members in birth control methods and moral questions. The question of the legality of abortion should be left up to civil authorities.

    September 7, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  19. Lindsey

    It's been said here and elsewhere time and again. If the Republicans/Christian Right were so concerned about "life", then they would not consider children who actually are BORN to be potential tax burdens borne to potential "welfare queens". They would not vote to threaten said child's health and well being, and even take the food out of their mouths with their opposition to food stamps. Apparently, only when "life" is in a uterus is it impotant to them...once a live child exits a uterus, they all wash their hands as Pilate did.

    Stinking hypocritical freaks. They make me want to vomit!

    September 7, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • Ram

      I thought the Dems wanted these "hypocritical freaks" (who incidentally donate more to charity than the Dems) to pay more taxes to provide social program funding? Isn't taking and spending money from people who make you "want to vomit" an act of "hypocrisy" on your part?

      September 7, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  20. Michael in Boston

    President Obama has faced "bitter, unyielding, in fact unprecedented partisan opposition." ~ Jimmy Carter. He did not divide this country – the Repulican Congress, Fox News and other conservative media (including the author of this article) did.

    September 7, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • Ram

      Read the article. The author self-identified as a Democrat.

      September 7, 2012 at 9:54 am |
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