WASHINGTON, Aug. 27, 2010 -- When prominent conservative commentator Glenn Beck suggested last year that allowing same-sex couples to marry might cause "the whole universe to collapse," his words were unremarkable in the midst of a hot political debate over the meaning of marriage.
But earlier this month, Beck raised eyebrows when he changed his tune. "I think we have bigger fish to fry," he said. "You can argue about abortion or gay marriage or whatever all you want. The country is burning down."
Beck's comments, reflecting alarm at the country's gloomy economic situation and the Democrats' policies to fix it, are emblematic of a sentiment shared by many conservative voters ahead of the November elections.
They also signal a broader shift in voters' attention, at least temporarily, away from the hot-button social issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, and embryonic stem cell research that fueled political debate in elections past.
"All the oxygen in this election is consumed by questions related to the economy, jobs, deficit and much less on social issues," said Scott Keeter of the Pew Center for the People and the Press.
Few political leaders or candidates, on either side of the aisle, have opined prominently on recent court decisions overturning California's ban on same-sex marriage and new federal guidelines for embryonic stem cell research.
And many politicos did little more than shrug this week when one of the most powerful and prominent Republicans, who had led the charge against same-sex marriage, came out as a gay man and in support of marriage rights.
"Folks in the conservative movement are still passionate about those issues," said Sarah Field of Liberty Central, a conservative advocacy group. "But the main things conservatives are focused on now is a philosophical view of government… The culture wars are still important, but the economy is now a piece of the culture war."
The de-emphasis on social issues in this election cycle is apparent in a survey of the 146 state ballot measures that will face voters in November. Only two – in Alaska and Colorado -- seek to impose limits on abortion, and none propose to ban gay marriages. In four states, ballot measures would legalize the sale or production of marijuana.
"Ballot measures are a place you see economic issues crowding out the rest," said Yuval Levin, a former White House domestic policy advisor for President George W. Bush now with the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
The overwhelming majority of ballot initiatives this fall concern issues of government bureaucracy, state bonds, and taxes.
Culture War Debates Muted, But Still Present
Levin said voters also realize that recent court rulings on embryonic stem cell research and gay marriage – and the appointment of a Supreme Court justice expected to be sympathetic to abortion rights – are hardly the final say on each issue.
"A lot of people saw [Monday's] decision on stem cells as a temporary matter, just as with the California ruling on gay marriage," said Levin. "But when the Supreme Court decides the case, it will be a huge issue and impossible for political figures on the national level not to talk about it."
Many political strategists agree the culture wars could be resurgent as the 2012 presidential campaign heats up.
But there are signs that the issues are actively coloring debate in some races this year.
Georgia's Republican gubernatorial runoff between Nathan Deal and Karen Handel earlier this month saw a flurry of exchanges between the candidates on nuances in their positions on abortion. And in Kansas, campaign ads for GOP candidates sparring for House and Senate seats also highlighted abortion views.
In the California governors race, Republican Meg Whitman and Democrat Jerry Brown stand opposed on the issue of Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriages in the state, and whether the state should defend the law in court.
And the controversy over a proposed Islamic community center and mosque near Ground Zero in New York may even be the latest twist in the cultural battle over morality, religion and public policy.
"The controversy over the mosque appears to resemble the culture wars in a lot of respects," said Keeter, who added it is still unclear whether the debate will factor into the November vote. "Debates over abortion and same-sex marriage aren't gone. There just isn't oxygen out there for the disputes."
For now, with all eyes on the economy, political figures and candidates for office from both parties may choose to shy away from taking bold stands on some of the outstanding hot-button debates unless politically necessary.
"Republicans and Democrats want their bases energized, but if they campaign on a social issue at a time when the country is so focused on the economy, it doesn't help you." Democratic strategist Steve McMahon.
"The culture wars are important to the base of both parties," said Democratic strategist Steve McMahon. And, he said, it's only a matter of time before the debate is back front and center.