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.

Steven Senne/AP
Domestic scene: Gary Chalmers (wiping table) and Richard Linnell are a married gay couple living in Whitinsville, Mass. They have a 16-year-old daughter, Paige, whom they adopted as an infant (far left).
Alex Brandon/AP
Proud choice: Federal Judge Sonia Sotomayor stands with President Obama after he announced her as his nominee to the US Supreme Court.

Since taking office, President Obama has yet to utter the phrase “gays in the military” or “don’t ask, don’t tell” in public.

That is by design. Mr. Obama knows well the lessons of the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who stumbled early when he ended the military’s ban on service by openly gay people, only to retreat after an outcry. During the 2008 campaign, Obama promised to end “don’t ask, don’t tell” – the 1993 compromise that allows gays to serve, as long as they keep their sexual orientation private. But as president, he still has not fulfilled that pledge and has, in fact, taken heat for allowing gay service members to continue to be discharged.

For the most part, on issue after issue in the long-running “culture wars,” Obama has played it low-key. After all, he has a deep recession and two wars on his plate. But as the Senate prepares to hold confirmation hearings for Obama’s first Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, many of the hot-button issues dear to religious conservatives are about to come roaring back – foremost among them gay marriage, abortion, and the role of faith in the public square.

Judge Sotomayor’s judicial record on those issues is thin, leading to concern among some liberals. But social conservatives are convinced she will vote against their causes, and – short of unpaid taxes or some other scandal – believe she is likely to be confirmed. Still, they view the hearings as an educational moment that can help the Republican Party.

“We would be remiss to allow a confirmation without trying to probe on behalf of the American people to make sure a jurist is not out of the mainstream,” says Gary Bauer, president of the group American Values and one-time GOP presidential candidate.

He points to a conservative shift in opinion on at least one question regarding abortion. A recent Gallup Poll found that a majority of the American public, 51 percent, now calls itself “pro-life,” the first such majority since Gallup began asking the question in 1995. But Gallup also found that a majority, 53 percent, believe abortion should be legal under certain circumstances, and that 22 percent believe it should be legal under all circumstances – numbers that, combined, tilt away from the picture of a majority “pro-life” public.

The president addressed the abortion issue in his commencement address at the University of Notre Dame last month, in response to the uproar over his invitation from the Roman Catholic university. His approach was classic Obama, aiming for a middle path. He acknowledged that “at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable” but called for a de-escalation of the rhetoric, urging both sides to stop “reducing those with differing views to caricature.”

When Obama announced his anticipated change in international abortion policy, at the start of his term, he did so in a way that minimized attention to the issue. By waiting until Jan. 23 to sign the order – which reversed the ban on US funds to international family-planning organizations involved in abortion – he missed the Jan. 22 anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. Thus, he avoided an added insult to groups that oppose abortion rights.

When Obama’s budget eliminated most funding for abstinence-only sex education, a favorite of the religious right, he made no announcement at all.

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.”

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