Thursday, February 4, 2010

What's really behind the Tim Tebow flap

By now you are probably aware of the controversy surrounding an upcoming Focus on the Family-sponsored Super Bowl ad featuring former University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, the missionary kid who was the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy in 2007. It hasn't even aired yet and pro-choice groups are already complaining.

That was the goal, no pun intended.

The upshot: His mother had become ill while pregnant with him and a doctor in the Philippines, where they were ministering at the time, had advised an abortion, which she obviously declined. The obvious message, of course, is that a woman who has an elective abortion may be snuffing out the life of a future quarterback, among other things.

I get that. But the underlying message has to do with the times -- the so-called culture war is at an ebb and is in serious danger of petering out, in large part because of the economy.

This shouldn't surprise. The "culture war" flourishes when -- and only when -- things are going relatively well economically. Back in the 1920s, a time of prosperity, our nation saw controversies between Protestant and Catholic (read: small-town teetotalers vs. big-city "wets") and the theological wars between "fundamentalists" and "modernists/social gospelers" in many Protestant denominations. A similar situation happened in the 1950s with the beginning of the Cold War, spilling over in the the civil-rights movement and the Vietnam War and which spawned the modern conservative movement.

However, when the economy falters such issues go on the back burner, leading people to vote their pocketbooks rather than their morals. The Great Depression basically put an end to those other flaps, with the fundamentalists basically dropping out of society altogether. The situation repeated again in the late 1980s when George H.W. Bush was president, at a time that many folks were abandoning conservative principles because they were losing their jobs. Fearing unthinkable defeat, in 1992 the Binghamton, N.Y church where anti-abortion activist Randall Terry attended took out a full-page ad in USA Today and the New York Times warning evangelical Christians not to vote for Bill Clinton. (Of course, Clinton won anyway.)

By 2006 and the Jack Abramoff-fueled corruption scandal that stained the Republican Party the culture war was in pretty much free-fall. That became clear when Focus on the Family sponsored ineffective "Stand for the Family" rallies in battleground states where, if I remember correctly, all the candidates it supported lost. (One was held here in Pittsburgh, essentially a shill for embattled Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, who still ended up being crushed at the polls.)

Still not getting the message, anti-abortionists during the 2008 presidential campaign went after then-candidate Barack Obama, highlighting his vote against a controversial late-term abortion bill while in the Illinois Senate. (The Times, however, pointed out that it had a companion bill that he knew wouldn't pass constitutional muster; after he left for the U.S. Senate, the Illinois Senate passed a much weaker bill.) Then, they made a lot of noise about a speech he made to Planned Parenthood vowing to sign the so-called Freedom of Choice Act that was supposedly making its way through Congress whenever it got to his desk. That turned into another urban myth, as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said in an interview in Time magazine last March that it had zero chance of getting through Congress. (And notice that he didn't sign an executive order having the same effect, either -- another unsubstantiated rumor.)

What's worse from that perspective, the idea of same-gender matrimony, which saw the apex of opposition back in 2004 (and probably the only reason George W. Bush was re-elected) is not only becoming more accepted but is now legal in six states, whether by referendum or court decisions.

That's the context for the upcoming Tebow ad. I suspect that the "culture warriors," many of who have become fairly wealthy in the process and were not affected much by the downturn, are actually trying to start another conflict to get folks' minds off the economy -- and incidentally, CBS (which usually doesn't accept advocacy advertisements) accepted it likely because of its own cash crunch. I don't, however, foresee a groundswell of anti-abortion activism.

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