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Rick Santorum's Bruce Jenner comment puts new twist on 'culture war'

Conservative Rick Santorum, speaking of transgender Bruce Jenner, says ‘my responsibility as a human being is to love and accept everybody.’ The political culture war may be shifting on LGBT issues.

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    Former US Senator Rick Santorum (R) of Pennsylvania speaks at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition's forum in Waukee, Iowa, April 25, 2015.
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The “culture war” in American politics used to be pretty well defined.

Conservatives were against abortion of any kind, and they opposed most efforts to include gay men and lesbians as protected classes under civil rights laws (especially regarding marriage). They favored organized prayer in public schools.

Liberals fought any government restrictions on abortion, and they advocated specific protections for homosexuals (concerning hate crimes, for example) and the right of same-sex couples to marry. They opposed organized school prayer under the constitutional separation of church and state.

Much of that remains true. But in some significant ways the political culture war is shifting, especially regarding LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) issues.

No one among recent Republican presidential hopefuls has been more of a conservative culture warrior than Rick Santorum, the former US senator from Pennsylvania who may jump into the 2016 race as well. Others among his GOP cohort may have parroted and even believed the kind of things Mr. Santorum said, but no one seemed to have felt it in his heart more deeply than he did.

Thus it was that his comments about Bruce Jenner – the 1976 Olympic decathlon gold medalist whose sexual identity (and consequent appearance) are shifting from male to female – were particularly notable.

“If he says he’s a woman, then he’s a woman,” Santorum said Saturday during a roundtable with reporters at the South Carolina Republican Party’s convention.

More to the point, he elaborated: “My responsibility as a human being is to love and accept everybody. Not to criticize people for who they are. I can criticize, and I do, for what people do, for their behavior. But as far as for who they are, you have to respect everybody, and these are obviously complex issues for businesses, for society, and I think we have to look at it in a way that is compassionate and respectful of everybody.”

In essence, Santorum (who is Roman Catholic) was echoing Pope Francis’ response two years ago to a question about homosexuality. "Who am I to judge them if they're seeking the Lord in good faith?" he said.

None of this means a wholesale switch in what Santorum believes and advocates. He recently said he would not attend a same-sex marriage.

Nor does it appear to have anything to do with the fact that Mr. Jenner also identified himself as a Christian and a Republican in the recent interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer in which he said, “For all intents and purposes, I'm a woman.”

But it does reflect a softening on LGBT issues among some on the political right-of-center.

Senator Ted Cruz (R) of Texas opposes same-sex marriage, and he urged supporters to pray on the recent day the US Supreme Court was hearing arguments on the issue. But asked recently how he would react if one of his daughters (ages 4 and 7) came out as gay, he replied: “We would love her with all our hearts. We love our daughters unconditionally.”

(Sen. Cruz’s statement came following a dinner meeting he had with two wealthy gay businessmen to talk about their mutually fervent support for the state of Israel.)

That may have been the only thing a presidential candidate could say given recent trends on such issues. A majority of Americans (55 percent) now support same-sex marriage, a figure that shoots up to nearly 80 percent among people 18-29 years old, according to Gallup.

“Public opinion has rendered its verdict on the morality of gay and lesbian relationships,” writes Republican pollster Whit Ayres in his new book “2016 and Beyond.” “The only question is whether the Republican Party will acknowledge and adapt to this new reality.”

It’s unclear whether Santorum’s aim to be “compassionate and respectful of everybody” will eventually extend beyond his recent comments about Bruce Jenner.

But one who did not hesitate to welcome Jenner was Log Cabin Republicans National Executive Director Gregory Angelo, who said in a statement following the ABC interview with Diane Sawyer:

“As the nation’s only organization representing LGBT conservatives and straight allies, Log Cabin Republicans congratulates Bruce Jenner in the tremendous courage he demonstrated tonight, being true to himself both in terms of his personal identity as well as his political identity. There is a home for you in Log Cabin Republicans – as there is for all lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender conservatives and straight allies.”

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