First and Ten of the Culture Wars

What did it mean to have two presidential candidates in 2008 downplay divisive social issues? Abortion was off the radar, gay marriage was nowhere in sight, and the death penalty…well, was hardly discussed. After eight years of an administration elected partly as a result of Christian, evangelical conservatives, the culture wars seemed to end in 2008. A global economic crisis and two wars made these political “wedge” issues politically unpopular with independent and moderate voters (not that they were ever that popular to begin with). President Bush in his 2004 reelection campaign talked heavily of a culture that respects life and marriage. The Republican nominee in 2008 had previously mocked leaders of the religious right as “agents of intolerance.” What a difference four years makes.

Flash forward to Obama’s second year in office. There have been cultural flash points during the first year of the president’s administration – abortion funding in healthcare legislation, the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, but in terms of presidential emphasis, Obama has not gone out on the preacher’s stump with sermons about choice and marriage equality. With no allies in the White House and few Republicans left on Capitol Hill, the religious right seems to be looking for any kind of audience or outlet.

Enter Super Bowl 2010. What better way to make a splash than $3 million worth of 30 second advertising intermixed with tackling, potato chips, and beer commercials? While we have always been warned about mixing religion and politics at the dinner table, no one ever said anything about the family couch! The culture wars are back in full force, the armistice is off, and groups on the left and right are preparing a new round of battles in the court of public opinion.

Two of the culture wars most hot button issues, abortion and gay marriage/relationships, are on the starting line up this coming Sunday. Focus on the Family will be sponsoring a commercial featuring Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow in which he and his mother speak about his difficult child birth, his mother’s development of a life threatening condition, and the doctors’ subsequent calls for her to have an abortion. While the word abortion is supposedly not mentioned, the message is clear: Tebow’s mom chose life and look what her son has accomplished. Pro-choice advocates are upset with CBS, who rewrote their advertising rules to allow the spot and similar “advocacy” advertisements during the holiest of football days.

That is only half the controversy. The website ManCrunch, a Toronto-based gay dating site, wished to air a humorous ad during the big game to promote its website. The ad shows two guys holding hands over a bowl of potato chips, which then leads to a “make-out” session. CBS said no dice. The decision to show a pro-life ad and not a pro-gay dating ad has opened the network up to charges of hypocrisy.

While CBS may have to explain its logic in awarding a spot to one type of advocacy ad and not another (it’s a private network so they can decide what to and what not to run), there is the larger free speech issue at stake here. First, with $3 million going for 30 seconds of airtime, free speech really isn’t free. In fact, it is quite costly. Focus on the Family led by the controversial James Dobson is willing to spend the money to promote a softer image of itself in a feel good ad. They are most likely hoping that football fans will identify with a football player and his story in the ad and thus the issue. Secondly, divisive social issues have not gone away with the end of the Bush administration. While President Obama has sought to keep these political bombs off the rhetorical agenda, third-party groups will elevate their issues if they feel their voice is not being heard. Additionally, the drive by these groups to push their agendas onto page one in alternative venues may forecast future clashes on the cultural field.

The controversial Supreme Court decision two weeks ago stating that corporations have the same first amendment rights as individuals has caused pro-choice advocates to cringe at the thought of a 5-4 majority overturning the underpinnings of Roe v. Wade. How does the campaign finance decision in Citizens United two weeks ago apply to Roe? In the process of granting corporations the rights of an individual, SCOTUS in a 5-4 decision overturned two key court precedents that were established in 1990 and 2003 in relation to campaign financing. Some believe the court’s ease with which it overturns precedent (the principle of stare decisis) could mean trouble for other past precedents, like Roe.

Nancy Northup of the Center for Reproductive Rights told Politico: “This is going to be an invitation to folks who want Roe v. Wade overturned to continue their push for restrictive state laws so they can get up before the court.”

Potentially seeing a window of support on the nation’s highest court, pro-life activists may go where they will get a hearing – literally. The same can be said for the gay dating ad for ManCrunch. With many states debating whether to extend marriage benefits to same-sex couples, the cultural controversy over the ad points to more battles ahead in state legislatures and courts on this hot button issue.

Whoever thought the Super Bowl could portend controversy in 2010 and beyond? Not counting wardrobe malfunctions, one of the largest sports events of the year is rarely a political affair. Not this year. Just as the 2010 election season kicks off along with the Colts and Saints this Sunday, the culture wars will be aired in living rooms across America.