Center for American Progress

Return of the Culture Wars: Tea Party’s Social and Religious Agenda and How Progressives Can Respond

Return of the Culture Wars: Tea Party’s Social and Religious Agenda and How Progressives Can Respond

Sally Steenland examines what the Tea Party will expect of conservatives on social and religious issues, and how progressives can respond.

Sen.-elect Rand Paul (R-KY), above, believes the government should intervene when it comes to pregnant women—forcing them to continue their pregnancy, even in cases of incest or rape. In fact, by the latest count, the midterm elections brought 44 more antiabortion votes to the House and six more votes to Senate. (AP/Ed Reinke)
Sen.-elect Rand Paul (R-KY), above, believes the government should intervene when it comes to pregnant women—forcing them to continue their pregnancy, even in cases of incest or rape. In fact, by the latest count, the midterm elections brought 44 more antiabortion votes to the House and six more votes to Senate. (AP/Ed Reinke)

Now that the midterm congressional elections are over and a sizable number of conservatives—including Tea Party members—have won office based on promises to slash federal spending and shrink the government, you might think that economic issues have trumped social-cultural issues in the public mind. You might also think that that the highly charged culture wars that have raged for decades over abortion and same-sex marriage have finally been replaced by battles over government size, effectiveness, and spending.

Not so fast. While it is true that economic issues top the public agenda—how could they not with unemployment stuck at 9.6 percent—it is also true that every Tea Party candidate, including self-proclaimed libertarians, ran on pro-life platforms. This was notably the case for Rand Paul, the Republican senator-elect from Kentucky. Based on words coming out of his own mouth, Paul is so strongly opposed to government intervention that he doesn’t approve of it even when businesses discriminate based on race—say, refusing to hire black people or serve them in a restaurant. But Paul believes the government should intervene when it comes to pregnant women—forcing them to continue their pregnancy, even in cases of incest or rape.

Another champion of conservative social issues is Congresswoman-elect Vicki Hartzler from Missouri, who was the spokeswoman for an antigay group, the Coalition to Protect Marriage. And newly elected Congressman Alan Nunnelee from Mississippi fought efforts in his state to allow gay and lesbian couples to adopt children. In fact, by the latest count, the midterm elections brought 44 more antiabortion votes to the House and six more votes to Senate. Some of the new members are also antifamily planning.

So culture war issues are still with us, albeit less noticed or somewhat disguised. Whether they remain so depends in part on upcoming battles within the Republican Party, as conservatives who assertively promote social issues fight those who do not.

The latter group recently released a letter urging House and Senate GOP members in the new Congress to “avoid social issues and focus instead on issues of economic freedom and individual liberty.” Among those signing the letter were Tea Party leaders and members of a conservative gay group, GOProud. They were echoing views expressed during the campaign by conservatives such as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who called for a “truce” on abortion, and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who told pro-life politicians to ignore abortion and focus on the economy.

Such calls to downplay social issues met a firestorm of criticism from fellow conservatives. Days after the GOProud letter, more than 150 Tea Party activists slammed it and shot off a letter of their own to Republican leaders, warning that “America is a conservative country. We expect conservative leadership.” Rep. Paul Ryan voiced similar views, saying that pro-life issues cannot be placed on a back burner. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee complained that these issues are not “bargaining chips.” And a pro-life coalition released a statement opposing any truce on abortion. “A truce would suggest there are issues more important than life, that abortion is somehow a negotiable issue,” the statement said. “It is not.”

This column will examine this turmoil within conservative ranks on Capitol Hill over the next two years. The purpose: to gauge what might happen between now and the next presidential and congressional elections, and how progressives can respond effectively and compassionately.

Growing the conservative ranks

In many ways, the 2012 presidential and congressional campaign is already afoot—along with a challenge for conservatives. How can they hold together their unwieldy coalition of religious conservatives, fiscal conservatives, libertarians, big business, and foreign policy hawks—not to mention independents who hopped on the party wagon in 2010 but could easily hop off in 2012?

Add to that challenge the fact that the base of the Republican Party is white as chalk. Although there are minority politicians in the party, such as Govs. Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, and Rep. Tim Scott of South Carolina, America is growing more ethnically and racially diverse but the Republican Party isn’t. By the year 2050 we will be a nation with no racial or ethnic majority. How can conservatives broaden their ranks to become a sustaining majority with that demographic writing on the wall?

Here’s where social-cultural issues such as abortion and marriage equality come into play. Many conservative strategists believe that a smart way to appeal to Latino and African-American voters is to work within their churches and faith groups in order to cement common values on social issues. Strategists hope that shared conservative values will trump issues on which there are differences, such as immigration and poverty, and will bring much needed racial and ethnic diversity to the party.

This strategy is on display in Georgia, where Georgia Right to Life unleashed a billboard campaign this year claiming that black children are an endangered species and that aborting them is a form of racial genocide. The campaign aims to frame abortion providers and reproductive rights advocates as racist, to frame southern conservatives and Republicans as champions of racial justice, and to build support for state legislation that would use racketeering statutes to incriminate abortion providers. Georgia Right to Life worked with Republicans to plan and carry out the campaign. They are now working in churches and college campuses throughout Georgia and plan to bring the campaign to 10 new states.

Latinos provide another potential group that can help broaden conservative ranks, especially those in evangelical communities. A recent research study by the Public Religion Research Institute shows a dramatic split between Latino Catholics and evangelicals in their views toward same-sex marriage. A majority of Latino Catholics (57 percent) approve of same-sex marriage, while only 21 percent of Latino Protestants approve.

Conservatives have worked closely with the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, which has actively opposed reproductive rights and same-sex marriage. Even as the NHCLC supports comprehensive immigration reform and climate care, it has worked to defeat marriage equality, especially through its support of Proposition 8 in California. Last year, its leader, Samuel Rodriguez, lined up with conservative Republicans and religious right leaders to fight health care reform. Rodriguez claimed that the bill promoted “death and infanticide,” and prayed that God would kill the legislation.

To be sure, the issue of immigration is highly important in Latino communities. Despite this, many conservatives promote anti-immigrant legislation and demonize immigrants for allegedly polluting the environment, increasing crime, stealing jobs, and spreading terrorism. Furthermore, according to a recent poll, a majority of Tea Party members believe that minorities have gotten too much attention from the government in the past few decades, that discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against racial minorities, and that it’s not a serious problem if some people have more chances in life than others.

Given such hostile views, it should come as no surprise that conservatives are targeting certain social issues in hopes of distracting attention from landmines such as immigration reform and real, ongoing discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities. How will these campaigns play out?

Public views shifting on abortion and same-sex marriage

Over the past three decades, religion has been one of the most reliable predictors of views on abortion and same-sex marriage. The more religious you are, the more likely you are to oppose both.

Take abortion—and whether it should be permitted only in cases of rape or incest, or to save the mother’s life. Those most likely to support this position are the most religious (78 percent) while those most likely to oppose it are the least religious (18 percent). Likewise with same-sex marriage: Those most opposed are the most religious (60 percent) while the most supportive are the least religious (16 percent).

The above numbers come from a new book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by Robert Putnam. In the book, Putnam describes how abortion and same-sex marriage came to be so tightly linked to religiosity and the Republican Party. He also describes some of the consequences of this linkage. Republicans are seen as the party of family values, religion is seen in the public mind as a conservative phenomena, and young people are increasingly secular. Unlike issues such as immigration or the death penalty, where there’s no significant difference in views between religious and secular people, with abortion and same-sex marriage, there is.

Until now. Putnam shows how this difference is starting to shrink, albeit in opposite directions. As acceptance of equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans seeps into faith communities, religious views on same-sex marriage are starting to resemble secular views. On the other side, as religious opposition to abortion seeps into secular society, secular views on abortion are starting to resemble religious views. Putnam puts it this way: “Homosexuality: increasing acceptance. Abortion: increasing ambivalence.”

Young people are key to both of these shifts. It’s not surprising that the younger generation is more supportive of gay rights than their elders. What is surprising is that they are less supportive of abortion than older generations. According to Putnam, “young people support gay marriage far more than their elders. … [but those] born after 1965 are less pro-choice than their baby boomer parents.”

Of course it is difficult to predict how these shifts will play out in the next few years and further down the road—especially given the fact that the views of most Americans lie midrange, not along either extreme. Add to that the fact that these issues represent larger realms of sexuality and family, and that unforeseen events and forces are likely to reshape the future in ways we cannot now see. Just look at public attitudes and voting behavior from 2008–2010, when Democrats went from winning significant numbers of religious voters and independents to losing both groups to Republicans in the recent midterm elections.

It is also difficult to predict how realignments regarding abortion and same-sex marriage might reshape partisan and religious coalitions. For instance, as acceptance of same-sex marriage and equality for lesbians and gays grows within faith communities, what does that mean for antigay groups that have relied on religious voters and donors to promote their cause? What new wedge issue can be found to raise money, rally the base, and unite diverse groups?

Well, Islamophobia seems to be the answer. Whether this is a useful wedge issue for conservatives remains to be seen, but indications are that anti-Muslim hate speech will intensify among conservative presidential candidates in the run-up to 2012.

Likewise, as weakened support for abortion spreads into secular society—think of the film, “Juno”—religious pro-life advocates must figure out how to appeal to the secular public, especially young people, who might be sympathetic to their cause but are averse to religion.

Many progressives who work on these issues are paying attention to the shifts that Putnam noted and assessing what they mean for our efforts. In the case of human rights for lesbian and gay Americans, it means helping to strengthen alliances between faith communities and advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, raising the visibility of faith voices and messages on equality, challenging hate speech, and more.

Fortunately, this work is happening. For instance, CAP’s faith team has raised the visibility of collaborative faith-LGBT efforts in states like Michigan, Arkansas, and Tennessee. In each state, we discovered a set of “lessons learned” that can be adapted to other states. Another example is the social media campaign, “It Gets Better” (and “Faith Gets Better”), created in the wake of gay teen suicides from bullying. And in the recent battle for marriage equality in Washington, D.C., faith leaders, including those from faith communities of color, were key advocates supporting the initiative.

Progressives are working on issues of reproductive rights and justice as well. Groups such as Catholics for Choice and the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing are longstanding voices that support women’s moral decision-making and healthy sexuality. Through Faith Aloud, clergy are providing counsel to women in clinics. They see abortion as morally complex but do not demonize or treat women like victims.

Conversations on reproductive rights now include justice issues, such as health care and economic opportunity, which greatly influence a woman’s capacity and decision to become a parent. And groups like Black Women for Reproductive Justice are working in churches to connect—and celebrate—female sexuality and spirituality. Additionally, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health aims to ensure reproductive rights and justice for Latinas as basic human rights.

Finally, on issues of LGBT human rights and reproductive justice, progressives—especially those working in faith communities—are helping to shift heated rhetoric and find common ground.

Looking ahead

At the moment, the economy is front and center—and rightfully so. But the truth is that the split between economic and social issues is in some ways false, because family values spill into the economic realm. And so, promoting healthy, secure families means supporting progressive policies such as paid medical and family leave, flex-time, and quality affordable child care—all of which are essential in helping men and women be reliable workers and responsible parents.

Family values also include health care. In fact, Pope Benedict XVI recently said that access to health care is a matter of basic justice and a “fundamental human right.”

Gaining traction for such views over the next two years will be challenging. Newly arrived conservatives in Washington are strongly hostile to health care reform legislation passed by the last Congress as well as to policies like paid sick leave that are of vital importance to working families. But that is no reason to give up.

In fact, it is reason to be bold. We should call out libertarians who become government interventionists when matters shift from economic and social justice to abortion and marriage equality. We should shame those who preach family values yet limit them to a few hot-button issues, denying pregnant women the supports they need and families the assistance they deserve in order to be healthy and strong.

Even more, we should move beyond defense. Starting now, we need to speak more forcefully about who we are as a people and a nation. Our vision is grounded in fairness, security, and opportunity, and sets out a path for us to reclaim the American Dream.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative