For decades, the “three Gs” have been a defining feature of the US political landscape. Guns, God and gays have been reliable hot-button issues constantly used to fire up Republicans and lambaste Democrats.
But there are signs now of a fundamental shift away from the so-called “culture wars” that have raged across American public life since at least the 1970s. In his first two months in office, US President Barack Obama has moved forward on a series of controversial issues and yet his popularity has barely suffered.
The president has taken a stand against anti-abortion rules in clinics and legalized funding for stem cell research. He has praised Islam and Iran on his recent overseas trip and held a Passover ceremony in the White House. Meanwhile, a series of states, including Iowa, deep in the American heartland, have legalized gay marriage and more are expected to follow suit.
Yet, for all the sound and fury this has prompted on the extreme right, Obama remains a popular president. That has led some to wonder if the culture wars are finally losing some of their power.
“People are tired of this. A lot of them are thinking: Let’s move on,” said professor Shaun Bowler, a political scientist at the University of California, Riverside.
Certainly that has been Obama’s strategy. His public stance has been one of reaching out to Republicans on major legislation. Such moves have often been rebuffed, but even so he went as far as keeping former president George W. Bush’s secretary of defense, Robert Gates, in his job at the Pentagon. In one recent poll, Obama — though still unpopular with Republicans — saw his approval rating tick up from 59 percent to 61 percent. Another had his rating attaining a healthy 66 percent.
Experts believe it is the economic crisis that is largely responsible for the failure of Republicans to make any headway by trying to attack using the “three Gs.” In tough times, fear of losing one’s job and home far outweighs the cultural issues that have previously dominated American politics. Americans are just too afraid of the collapsing economy to pay much attention to things that have no material impact on them.
“When you are losing your home, what do you care if two guys in Iowa can now wear a frock and get married,” Bowler said.
There are other things going on, too, beyond the simple fact of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Many believe there is a generational shift going on in the US, as young voters come of age having grown up more tolerant of issues such as homosexuality and gay marriage. For these voters the culture wars seem a relic of the past. There is also a slight slip in the number of Americans identifying themselves as Christian, down 10 points over the past 20 years.
“There is some generational change, especially in Christian conservative circles. That perhaps is contributing to the diminution [of the culture wars],” said Corwin Smidt, a specialist on religion in politics at Calvin University and author of the book Religion and the Culture Wars.
Even in many religious circles — and these include the powerful evangelical movement — there is a growing engagement with other issues such as the environment, aid in the developing world and combating HIV. Obama has actively cultivated his own religious image and courted powerful evangelical leaders such as Pastor Rick Warren, who spoke at Obama’s inauguration. The decision to court Warren’s approval outraged many gay activists, but Obama’s team ignored their protests in favor of carving out the middle ground.