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Church and State

How Barack Obama ended the culture wars--for now.

WASHINGTON--It is 2009's quiet story--quiet because it's about what didn't happen, which can be as important as what did.

In this highly partisan year, we did not see a sharpening of the battles over religion and culture.

Yes, we continued to fight over gay marriage, and arguments about abortion were a feature of the health care debate. But what's more striking is that other issues--notably economics and the role of government--trumped culture and religion in the public square. The culture wars wentinto recession along with the economy.

The most striking transformation occurred on the right end of politics. For now, the loudest and most activist sections of the conservative cause are not its religious voices but the mostly secular, anti-government Tea Party activists.

Especially revealing is the re-emergence of former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a prime mover behind the tea parties and a longtime critic of the religious right. He once said that James Dobson of Focus on the Family and his allies were a "gang of thugs" and "real nasty bullies."

Armey and his supporters speak a libertarian language that contrasts sharply with the message of Christian conservatives. "When Republicans are fighting against the power of the state, we win," Armey told The New York Times recently. "When we are trying to advance it, we lose."

At the same time, President Obama has been unabashed in offering his views on religious questions. Two of the most important speeches of his first year--his addresses at the Notre Dame graduation in May and in Oslo this month when he received the Nobel Peace Prize--were suffused with the language of faith. At Notre Dame, the president lavishly praised the Catholic social justice tradition. In Oslo, he spoke as a Christian realist clearly conversant with the ideas of Reinhold Niebuhr, the great 20th-century theologian.

On President Bush's faith-based initiative, Obama has made reforms but largely avoided or postponed dealing with the most controversial questions.

Even the cultural and religious conflicts that have persisted were debated at a lower volume. Going into the health care skirmishes, both supporters and opponents of abortion rights pledged that they would not try to upset current arrangements that bar federal funding of abortion. Although they feuded bitterly over what this meant in practice, their opening positions reflected a pulling back from the brink.

The Senate compromise on abortion negotiated by Sens. Ben Nelson, Bob Casey and Barbara Boxer did not fully satisfy either camp in the abortion struggle, and there will be fallout in the new year. ("Imagine, we Democrats managed to make both sides on the abortion issue unhappy," said one House member, wryly but accurately.) Nonetheless, those who expected the abortion controversy to sink the cause of health care reform have, so far, been proved wrong.

And while gay marriage continues to roil politics at the state and local level, this argument has now become part of the routine of American politics. Republican politicians have shown a limited appetite for nationalizing the issue, something they did eagerly before the 2004 election. Judging by the closeness of some of the referendum votes--notably this year in Maine, where it lost narrowly--support for gay marriage has grown, although its backers are still short of a majority in most places.

In the meantime, religious progressives are mobilized to a degree not seen since the civil rights years. They weighed in regularly on health care, providing energy for the compromises on abortion that would otherwise have won little organized support.

Of course, it was inevitable that cultural and religious issues would at least partially recede during a sharp economic downturn. Such matters also declined in importance during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and none more so than the previous decade's struggle over the prohibition of alcohol.

At the time, historian William E. Leuchtenburg reported, a Missouri Democrat told James Farley, one of Franklin Roosevelt's top lieutenants, that it was "ridiculous for a jobless wet Democrat to wrangle with a jobless dry Democrat over liquor when neither could afford the price of a drink."

The paradox for Obama is that if the economy continues its comeback in 2010, his overall standing will improve, but the risk of renewed conflict over religion and values will also rise. It's a trade the president will happily take, even if he would then face a much tougher test of his credentials as a cultural peacemaker.

E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.

(c) 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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