Fresh skirmishes in culture war open new front for Republicans


AMERICA:Birth control, abortion and gay marriage are back on the agenda, to the delight of the right

BARACK OBAMA wanted the presidential election campaign to be about income inequality and a fair distribution of the tax burden. But that was hostile terrain for the Republican party, whose frontrunner Mitt Romney has $250 million, pays less than 15 per cent income tax and embodies the “1 per cent” made infamous by Occupy Wall Street.

The American right is much happier fighting the culture wars that were ignited by the 1960s revolution, gained momentum with the rise of the religious right in the 1980s and reached their apogee under the Clinton and Bush administrations, with the obsession over guns, gays, prayer in schools, flag-burning, abortion, stem cell research and the seven-year vigil for a brain-dead woman called Terri Schiavo.

The culture wars seemed to subside with the recession. Suddenly, they’re back with a vengeance. This week, Rick Santorum, a devout Catholic and cultural warrior who would force rape victims to give birth if impregnated by the rapist, won Republican presidential caucuses in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri.

Three of the biggest news stories this week involved vintage culture war issues: birth control; steps towards legalising gay marriage in California and Washington state; and the resignation of Karen Handel from the Susan G Komen for the Cure breast cancer foundation, after Handel tried to cut funding for Planned Parenthood because it conducts abortions.

As part of its overhaul of health care, the department of health and human services issued a directive late last month that Catholic hospitals, charities and universities would, like other employers, be required to provide medical insurance that includes contraception for their female employees. An exemption was granted for churches.

Never mind that 28 of 50 states already have laws requiring the same thing, that 99 per cent of sexually active American women have used artificial contraception, including (according to a study by the Guttmacher Institute) 98 per cent of Catholic women in the US.

All hell broke loose, with defenders of the rule saying it was a question of equality for women and opponents accusing Obama of violating the first amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom.

“Never before,” wrote Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, the president of the US Conference of Bishops, “has the federal government forced individuals and organisations to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience.”

“This attacks our freedom,” Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington said. He, like other Catholic leaders, says Catholic charities would have to stop work that helps millions of poor people in the US if the rule is enforced. “This administration has redefined healthcare,” Wuerl said. “We don’t consider pregnancy an illness that must be prevented.”

The contraceptive rule was announced by health and human services secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic Irish-American. She and two high-ranking women in the White House, Valerie Jarrett and Nancy-Ann DeParle, argued for it, while three Irish-American Catholic men – vice-president Joe Biden, the former chief of staff Bill Daley and the deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough – are reported to have cautioned Obama against antagonising the church.

Obama sided with the women. The Catholic hierarchy enlisted the support of evangelical Christians and the Republican presidential hopefuls. It’s been impossible to read a newspaper or turn on the television without encountering “Obama’s war on religion”. At this week’s annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, there was more talk of contraceptives than the economy.

Obama devoted a White House speech to contraception yesterday, in which he claimed to have found a compromise whereby “women will still have access to free preventive care that includes contraceptive services – no matter where they work”, while employers with religious objections to providing birth control would be saved by insurance companies offering women contraception at no charge. “Religious liberty will be protected,” Obama promised.

Obama’s linguistic sleight of hand is not going to fly with conservatives, who relish the resumption of the culture wars.

“The White House merely wants the religious institutions to pretend with them they are not funding this coverage, when the reality is they will be,” said Bill Wilson of the conservative group Americans for Limited Government. “This is unconscionable.”

Spooked by the rise of Santorum, Romney did his best to win over the CPAC audience yesterday, repeating the words “conservative” and “conservatism” 20 times. As governor, Romney claimed, he “prevented Massachusetts from becoming the Las Vegas of gay marriage”. If elected, Romney promised to fight for a constitutional amendment “defining marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman” and “reverse every single Obama regulation that attacks our religious liberty and threatens innocent life.”