First came the controversy surrounding President Obama's invitation to speak at Notre Dame, and the predictable attacks against Supreme Court nominee Sotomayor. Then, the shocking murder of Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider in Wichita, Kansas, and fatal shooting at the Holocaust Museum by a white supremacist. In the wake of these seemingly escalating events, many have found themselves once again braced for a culture brawl extraordinaire.
But those who are holding their breath for a return to 1990s-style warfare on issues like gays and abortion are going to turn blue in the face. Despite recent events that might suggest otherwise, the American people are not in the mood for combat on culture issues.
On the contrary, Americans are yearning for common ground. And President Obama both knows it and embraces it at his core. Hence his call at Notre Dame to stop "demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side" and approach our differences with "open hearts, open minds, [and] fair-minded words."
Even on gay equality, controversies undoubtedly remain, but the trend is towards conversation rather than warfare. Take the hate crimes debate. Despite efforts in some circles to pit gay Americans against people of faith, Congress is now poised to pass hate crimes legislation that would both protect religious liberty and ensure that no person is targeted for violence based on who they are. And in contrast to past efforts, when religious leaders formed only the opposition to the hate crimes bill, this time a group of prominent pastors have drawn on shared religious and American values to issue statements of support for the legislation. This movement towards common ground was also recently visible in New Hampshire, where the state legislature and the governor worked together to draft and pass a bipartisan marriage bill that protects the rights of religious institutions and churches who object to marriage for same-sex couples.
The biggest turnabout has come on the most notorious culture war issue: abortion. The common ground abortion movement has taken on a momentum of its own; there is no turning back the clock. President Obama has firmly embarked on the path of working together to reduce the need for abortion. In his own words, "...let's work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term." Currently, in a completely novel move by a Presidential Administration, the Obama folks are knee-deep in conversations with both the pro-life and pro-choice communities figuring out the most effective common ground agenda to achieve their goals. Also noteworthy is the Administration's strategy of calling these leaders on opposite sides of the issue together into the same room to discuss best practices around shared goals. As a participant at such meetings, I can report that the two sides are sitting side by side and having constructive conversations. I'm not sure anyone would have believed this could be done or that a President would do this even a few years ago.
Given the common ground spirit of our new President, it may come as no surprise that the American people are also in the mood for common ground on abortion. In a national poll by Third Way, 74% of Americans said that they wanted their elected officials to look for common ground on abortion. President Obama's consistent commitment throughout his campaign to respecting those on both sides of the issue and holding up shared values around reducing unintended pregnancy and supporting pregnant women no doubt contributed to his win last November.
When it comes to the culture wars, change really has come to America. Profound differences will always remain on issues like gay equality and abortion, but an overwhelmingly popular President and a rising chorus of Americans are imploring policymakers to replace the culture wars with culture discussions. In this new moment, engaging in partisan warfare seems simply passé.
As the President says, "Culture wars are so '90s."