Economy Bankrupting the Culture War?

An odd, if cold-comforting, silver lining to the economic crisis has been the decline in the “values” crusades. As Frank Rich recently noted in the New York Times, with more and more people losing their houses and their jobs, no one seems to have much time or inclination to rail against gays and lesbians or other popular “culture war” targets.

Here, at last, is one piece of good news in our global economic meltdown: Americans have less and less patience for the intrusive and divisive moral scolds who thrived in the bubbles of the Clinton and Bush years. Culture wars are a luxury the country—the G.O.P. included—can no longer afford.

Not only was Obama’s stem-cell decree an anticlimactic blip in the news, but so was his earlier reversal of Bush restrictions on the use of federal money by organizations offering abortions overseas. When the administration tardily ends “don’t ask, don’t tell,” you can bet that this action, too, will be greeted by more yawns than howls.

As proof of this decline in the culture wars, Bloomberg News notes that President Obama’s nominee to head the Office of Personnel Management, M. John Berry, is expected to win easy approval, despite the fact that he is openly gay.

“Voters aren’t interested in fighting the social-issue battles right now,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “They want their politicians focused like a laser on the economy.”

The recession’s effect on workers and families has “transformed the cultural puzzle” in Congress and will free Obama to change social policy, including lifting the ban on gay troops, Sabato said.

“While the country isn’t paying attention to social issues, he can move the ball down the field in the Democratic direction,” he said.

Even the usual complaining by the religious right apparently won’t be enough to torpedo his confirmation on March 26:

Opponents of Berry’s policy positions and “profoundly immoral lifestyle” are unhappy with GOP lawmakers’ nonchalant response, said Robert Knight, a veteran conservative activist who helped draft the federal marriage act, which defines the union as between a man and woman.

“Somebody on the Republican side needs to find a spine,” said Knight, a senior writer and media critic with Coral Ridge Ministries in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

For the gay and lesbian community the loss of interest in our community as a political football can certainly sound like good news, except, being human and all, we’re also part of that economic downturn. It appears, according to a new study, that more and more gay and lesbian people are living in poverty, shattering the myth pushed by the religious right that gays are far wealthier than heterosexuals.

Lesbian couples are more likely to be poor than married heterosexuals, and children of same-sex parents are twice as likely to live in poverty as those of traditional married couples, a new report shows.

UCLA’s Williams Institute, which studies gay issues, says its report out today is the first to analyze poverty among gay and lesbian couples.

The cause of much of this poverty is, of course, the inequity in such legal institutions as marriage:

Badgett says same-sex partners are more likely to be poor because they lack such safety nets as a spouse’s health insurance coverage and Social Security survivor benefits.

With the “culture wars” on the wane, one might think that perhaps marriage rights for gays and lesbians would elicit more yawns than howls, but it’s Berry’s support for opening up federal benefits for gay and lesbian employees that is really causing the howl from the religious right.

For some voters, the issue is still politically charged, said Richard Land, leader of the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, based in Nashville, Tennessee.

“Opposition to same-sex marriage is the most unifying issue among Baptists, exceeding even abortion,” Land said. “When they offer same-sex benefits to federal workers, they are using taxpayer money to pay for them and that is something we would be very concerned about and oppose.”

The religious right, even in a downturn of support for their issues, remains true to form—opposing anything that might make the lives of gays and lesbians a little less miserable, not just from a rights standpoint, but from an economic standpoint as well. At least their track record for disregarding the gay and lesbian “least of these” is consistent, even when it comes to their economic stability.

While the religious right continues its crusade to deny equal social and economic rights to gays and lesbians, another study shows divorce can be good for the wallet—well, the man’s wallet anyway.  Divorced men can see their incomes increase immediately by 25% if they leave a childless marriage.

The women they leave, however, have much in common with their lesbian counterparts:

Women, in contrast, suffer severe financial penalties. Regardless of whether she has children, the average woman’s income falls by more than a fifth and remains low for many years.

While it may be the economic downturn that has diverted attention from making life as difficult as possible for gays and lesbians—it is still obviously economics (as well as gender inequity) that divides us in many ways. Perhaps the latest crisis will be a wake-up call to all people of good will that true “value” issues are economic issues. As we rebuild our country’s economic infrastructure, the have-nots (and their allies) must begin to agitate for more parity and equity in a system already severely tilted toward the haves—be they gay or straight.