Barack Obama’s election was supposed to signal the end, or at least the diminishment, of the cultural issues that Republicans had feasted on electorally for 30 years. The “wedge issues” of old had been a Republican contrivance anyway, and once freed of them, American politics would be more praiseworthy (and, not coincidentally, more liberal).

This story line lasted all of a few weeks, as Obama’s inaugural ceremony has become embroiled in a nasty cultural spat. In a nice (and shrewd) gesture, Obama invited the evangelical Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation Jan. 20. The ensuing firestorm sheds light on two questions: Is there a real culture war in this country, deeper and more abiding than any one political party’s electoral strategy? And who is the aggressor in it? The answers, respectively, are “yes” and “the cultural left.”

Warren is comfortably in the American mainstream. The pastor of the Saddleback evangelical mega-church in Lake Forest, Calif., he’s the author of “The Purpose Driven Life,” which sold more than 20 million copies. He’s worked to broaden evangelicals’ public concerns, widening them out from abortion to alleviating world poverty and fighting global warming. Passionate about fostering a civil discourse, he’s twice welcomed Obama to forums at his church.

Warren, in short, is an unlikely hate figure, more Billy Graham than Pat Robertson. But he has a black mark against him for those yelping in rage about his participation in the inauguration. He believes what a majority of Americans do, what the vast majority of the planet does, and what all major religions maintain about marriage: namely, it should be defined as between a man and a woman.

Warren supports partnership benefits for gay couples, but not marriage. According to a recent Newsweek poll, he’s among two-thirds of Americans against gay marriage: About a third of Americans favor gay marriage, a third favor civil unions but not marriage, and a third favor no legal recognition. Even Barack Obama – the liberal paladin whose inauguration allegedly will be besmirched by Warren’s presence – says he opposes gay marriage, although apparently few of his supporters believe him (for good reason).

Warren is a particular provocation to the left after the passage of Proposition 8 in California. The ballot initiative – supported by Warren – amended the California Constitution to define marriage as a union between man and woman. The vote was necessary only because the California Supreme Court had imposed gay marriage on the state earlier this year. As in so many other culture-war battles, the traditionalists were the ones in a fundamentally defensive posture. They defended an age-old definition of gay marriage, while the left sought – using its favorite tool, the courts – to run roughshod over majority sentiment.

Now, traditionalists will have to beat back an attempt to define their view of marriage as out of bounds, as the moral equivalent of racism. Mormons who contributed financially to Prop. 8 have been vilified and intimidated, and California Attorney General Jerry Brown has deemed Prop. 8 so illegitimate he won’t defend it in court even though it’s his duty to do so. The attacks on Warren are part of this strategy: If Pastor Rick can be defined as a hatemonger undeserving of a prominent public stage, surely the same can be done to any opponent of gay marriage.

In a story about Hollywood’s outrage at Obama’s choice of Warren, Democratic political consultant Chad Griffin told the Los Angeles Times: “Rick Warren needs to realize that he is further dividing us at a time when the country needs to come together. I think he needs to gracefully step aside.” Ah, yes, “gracefully step aside.” That’s essentially what the cultural left has been asking traditionalists to do for 30 years now, to politely shut up while it goes about redefining the country’s mores. The answer must now be, as it has always been, “No way, no how.”

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: [email protected]

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