Will ending the culture wars be as difficult as repairing a broken economy?

If President Obama’s primary task is to restore economic growth, he has also been waging a quiet, long-term campaign to ease the nation’s divisions around religious and moral questions.

That venture, which has its roots in a 2006 speech that paid tribute to the political role of religious Americans, bore fruit in last year’s election. Obama increased the Democratic share of the vote among Roman Catholics and younger evangelical Christians.

Since assuming the presidency, he has pressed this effort through persistent calls to personal and family responsibility, a pledge to continue social service partnerships between government and faith-based groups, and a promise to pursue policies to reduce the number of abortions.

But two of Obama’s recent decisions underscored how brokering cultural peace will keep presenting him with ticklish challenges.

Last Friday, his administration signaled that it would alter the sweeping rules adopted at the end of the Bush administration allowing health care workers to decline to participate in actions that violate their moral or religious beliefs.

Such conscience protections have long applied to doctors, nurses and others who refuse to play any role in an abortion, and the administration has indicated it will maintain these safeguards. But it is likely to narrow the Bush regulation significantly so it doesn’t get in the way of family planning services and fertility treatments.

Then, Obama set off a loud skirmish among Roman Catholics by nominating Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas to be his secretary of health and human services.

Sebelius, like Obama, has advocated abortion reduction, but she vetoed a series of bills favored by anti-abortion groups, including restrictions on late-term abortions and parental consent laws. Last May, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City called on Sebelius to stop taking communion because of what he described as “her long-standing support for legalized abortion.”

Conservative Catholic groups quickly denounced the nomination. “She is the champion of abortion rights right through term,” said Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, “and for Obama to choose somebody who has sown such division within the Catholic community to head HHS really is an insult to Catholics.”

But it was a sign of how much the religious landscape has changed that even before the conservatives launched their assaults, more liberal Catholics began rallying to Sebelius. Catholics United, a progressive group, immediately issued a statement signed by 25 prominent Catholics — including three priests — describing Sebelius as “a woman of deep faith” who had expanded adoption programs, financed social services for pregnant women, promoted alternatives to abortion and signed a bill making the killing of a fetus a separate crime if a pregnant woman was murdered.

At the same time, a largely evangelical group, including the Rev. Joel Hunter and David Gushee, president of Evangelicals for Human Rights, put out its own pro-Sebelius statement noting that the abortion rate in Kansas declined 10 percent during her time in office.

The rapid mobilization behind Sebelius marked the emergence of an organized movement of religious progressives as a forceful counterweight to religious conservatives, and the case made on her behalf brought home the centrality of abortion reduction to the overall argument.

This has made some traditional feminist groups nervous, as did Obama’s decision to give his Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships a mandate to make decreasing the number of abortions a part of its mission. Obama went out of his way to include opponents as well as supporters of abortion rights as members of the council.

Thus Obama’s balancing act in moving to alter the Bush conscience rules, which reassured family planning and pro-choice groups.

The president has cast his effort to reduce polarization around moral questions as a search for “common ground.” Many of the religious liberals the new president has mobilized say the minimum requirements for this quest include maintaining the strong conscience protections on abortion for health professionals and guarantees that federal money not be used to pay for abortions.

If Sebelius is confirmed, one of her early challenges could come on the question of whether abortion coverage should be part of a universal health insurance proposal.

Given the opposition in Congress to any federal funding for abortion, this issue could go away. Obama almost certainly hopes that it does. His success as a cultural peacemaker depends on his ability to move the country’s moral discussion toward social justice and economics. Paradoxically, perhaps, he’d rather have citizens thinking about taxes and collapsing banks than abortion.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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