Center for American Progress

So-Called ‘Cultural War’ Issues Are Really About Justice

So-Called ‘Cultural War’ Issues Are Really About Justice

Marriage equality and women’s reproductive rights are now being seen for what they always were: issues of basic justice.

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Ariel David and her daughter, Nelly David, play with a pride flag during a rally in New Orleans on September 3, 2014. (AP/Gerald Herbert)
Ariel David and her daughter, Nelly David, play with a pride flag during a rally in New Orleans on September 3, 2014. (AP/Gerald Herbert)

What a difference a decade makes. Ten years ago, the so-called “culture war” issues—especially abortion and same-sex marriage—were a boon to conservatives in terms of fundraising and energizing their base to go to the polls. Liberals and progressives, on the other hand, saw these issues as toxic and tried to avoid talking about them if at all possible.

Not anymore. This year, liberals and progressives see marriage equality and women’s reproductive health—including safeguarding legal abortion—as winning issues that bring in money and new voters. Now, it tends to be conservatives who are straining when these issues are raised.

What happened?

First, the struggle for equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, Americans has made great progress in the past 10 years, as straight Americans have come to know LGBT friends, family members, neighbors, and co-workers. Add to that the faith voices in virtually every denomination that have provided theological grounding, emotional support, and political activism on LGBT equality, and it’s no surprise that the cultural tectonic plates have dramatically shifted. Same-sex marriage is now legal in 19 states, and it seems that courts are overturning bans against it in new states each day. As a result, people are increasingly seeing marriage equality for what it always was: an issue of basic justice.

Second, the legal and political attacks on women’s reproductive health over the past several years have made it plain that the conservative war on abortion has always targeted more than just abortion. Contraception is now in the crosshairs too, despite 9 out of 10 women using birth control at some point in their lives and the majority of religious traditions supporting contraception and family planning as a moral good.

The Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling in June, which allows for-profit corporations to refuse to provide contraception in their health plans based on their owners’ religious objections, has enraged millions of people. They are connecting the dots and seeing the link between economic and reproductive health issues, and the importance of being able to follow one’s conscience. Groups such as the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and the National Council of Jewish Women are connecting faith and reproductive justice, as are the remarkable faith leaders in CAP’s Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute. As a result, something that was previously seen as a culture war issue is rightly shifting into the justice column.

But that’s not all that has happened. The progressive faith movement has grown in strength and influence over the past decade, connecting a multiplicity of issues into one seamless garment of justice. Immigration reform, climate change, poverty reduction, gun-violence prevention, criminal justice, voting rights, reproductive justice, LGBT equality—these are not merely words on a list; they are connective forces that shape our lives. Faith leaders see these connections every day as they work on the front lines. And they are naming it in their public witness.

When issues are not broken into silos, they reflect more clearly the way we actually live. When a woman who works at a minimum-wage job gets pregnant, for instance, her economic and reproductive health are intertwined. When a gay man gets fired because of his sexual orientation, it makes no sense to distinguish between justice and culture war issues.

Every policy issue is embedded with moral values—with a vision of human nature and our responsibilities to each other. Every voter is a values voter.

This election season, I vote for dumping the term “culture war.” It’s a relic of the past—one that didn’t reflect reality a decade ago and certainly doesn’t reflect our experience now.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative

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