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Election 2012: Economy or Culture War?

Report from Journalist Amy Sullivan’s Tuesday Night Lecture


On Tuesday night, journalist Amy Sullivan, a former senior editor for Time Magazine, spoke on her chosen topic, “Culture War Games: Religion and the 2012 Election,” in a challenging lecture sponsored by UCSB’s Walter H. Capps Center for the study of Ethics, Religion, and Public Life.

The speaker masterfully mixed wonky details about health-care laws and the associated issue of contraception for women (made famous by Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a “slut”) to the deep constitutional debate over “religious freedom.” She pointed out that President Barack Obama has supported President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative programs; indeed, he has increased their funding. When Catholic Americans argued that they should not be mandated by the feds to furnish birth control in their own hospitals, Obama and the Democrats scrambled and, under a good definition of religious liberty, made an exemption for them. In another sense, moderate Catholics weren’t specifically targeting women in their objection to making their church pay for something they ethically oppose.

Sullivan made it clear that creating a socially divisive, cultural “war game” against the Democrats — like “Obama’s War on Religion” — is not borne out by the facts under this administration. In candid small group conversations, she explained, President Obama sounds much more “religious” than George W. Bush. There is no “war on religion,” but it makes great politics for some Republican candidates.

She noted that last week Mitt Romney stated categorically that “there is a war on religion in America” and it’s led by those who “wanted to establish a religion of secularism.” The conservative Catholic bishops association in Washington, D.C., has made the purported threats to “religious freedom” the main point on their yearly agenda. Many pundits wonder why the Republicans and conservatives stay with the “war on religion” issue when the economy and national debt were recently their main criticism of the administration.

Sullivan referred to reliable polls showing 85 percent of Americans responded that “religion is an important part of my life.” Another poll shows that 90 percent of Americans feel the First Amendment’s stress on religious liberty is crucial in our democracy and that it seems to be well-respected today. Sullivan stressed there really isn’t a “war on religion” in the U.S.A. today, just as there really isn’t a “war on women” either.

In January, the U.S. economy seemed obvious as the top election year story: joblessness, a sputtering recovery from 2008, the huge national debt, scandalously low funding for public education, taxes — plenty to fight about. Then cultural wedge issues popped up, specifically manipulated by candidates in the chaotic Republic primary process. Sullivan wisely showed the audience, with many students from UCSB present, that there are more basic issues, namely these two:

1) Do we want contraception to be available to all women?

2) Are there any limits to religious liberty?

Certainly the mix of religion and politics is always volatile, and our founding fathers explicitly separated church and state, with John F. Kennedy reiterating this absolute line in his presidential election over 50 years ago. Just as there are actually limits to freedom of speech, there are limits to religious freedoms as well.

As Sullivan pointed out adroitly, too much fixation on illusory “wars” on religion or on women prevent genuine dialogue on these highly complex problems. How can we grow as a country if we “militarize” our every social issue?

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story mistakenly attributed the Sandra Fluke characterization and has been corrected.

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