Supreme Court choice could reignite culture wars
Judge Sotomayor's confirmation hearings could provide the spark on hot-button issues such as gay marriage and abortion.
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When Obama’s budget eliminated most funding for abstinence-only sex education, a favorite of the religious right, he made no announcement at all.Skip to next paragraph
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For Christian conservatives, the hottest area of jurisprudence in social policy is gay marriage, as states continue to legalize it – either through the legislative process or via state courts. Conservative senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee plan to explore the legal underpinnings of this controversial trend with Sotomayor, as a way to get at her judicial philosophy.
Obama himself has played the issue safe, saying he supports civil unions, not gay marriage, and letting states take the lead.
One area of social policy where Obama has made a forceful public statement is on embryonic stem-cell research, in which he eased Bush-era restrictions. Obama made the announcement on a Monday, thus teeing up a week of attention, and took a slap at his predecessor when he spoke pointedly about restoring “our commitment to science.” It is probably no coincidence that this is one culture-war issue where public opinion clearly favors Obama, and where some social conservatives break ranks and back expanded research.
Obama has also quieted some critics (and frustrated some allies) by expanding the White House’s faith-based outreach into policy planning.
Under President Bush, the initiative centered on federal partnerships with religious groups that help pull people out of poverty. Obama has kept the Bush structure, and added efforts to reduce abortion and encourage responsibility among fathers. He also included on his advisory board some high-profile Evangelicals.
“His strategy, to some, extent of tamping down the culture-war questions does give him a certain advantage,” says Jim Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. “It’s really hard for more moderately conservative evangelical Protestants and others to really get themselves worked up.”
And even as some liberals complain that Obama has not delivered for them, that’s standard “third way” politics. If no one’s completely happy or unhappy, then he must be getting it right, the reasoning goes.
Obama also benefits from governing during a period of transition in religious conservative activism. The old guard is leaving the scene, and some new leaders are open to more liberal positions on climate change and poverty. Activists, increasingly, are organizing around specific issues, such as gay marriage, rather than from broad-based interest groups, such as the old Christian Coalition.
This allows advocates to gather like-minded people – such as blacks and Hispanics – who might otherwise disagree with them on other parts of their agenda. But many longtime conservative activists are still in the game, and they know the popular Obama will be tough to defeat over the Supreme Court.
“It’s ironic, because he’s personally got a moderate demeanor,” says Mr. Bauer of American Values. “But he’s actually been very radical in attacking across the whole front of values issues.”