Those who’ve been following the birth control brouhaha may be wondering what on earth Republicans think they’re doing. The answer is that they’re expressing an opinion regarding sexual morality that’s popular among their voters but nobody else: namely that unmarried people shouldn’t have sex at all.
Gallup for many years has been polling Americans on whether certain things are “morally acceptable” or “morally wrong.” Regarding “sex between an unmarried man and woman,” the latest figures I could find (from 2011) show that 60 percent regard that as “morally acceptable” and only 36 percent “morally wrong.” (According to the .pdf of the whole survey, that 24-point spread is up from only 11 points in 2001.)
One reason old Republican men are so out of touch on this is that there’s a huge age gap in attitudes. The Gallup figures show that premarital sex is considered acceptable by 71 percent of 18-34-year-olds, but only 47 percent of those 55 and older. This makes premarital sex the third-most divisive moral issue by age, after pornography and gay or lesbian sex.
But the fascinating part is the partisan split. Gallup in 2011 didn’t break the figures down by party. But it did in 2010 (when the overall “acceptable” figure was almost identical, 59 percent). The result was (press release here, full .pdf here)
67 percent of Democrats think premarital sex is morally acceptable;
64 percent of Independents;
only 47 percent of Republicans.
If one did a separate breakdown by age and sex, I’m sure this would jump out even more. Probably a very small minority of older Republicans think that premarital sex is OK, but an overwhelming majority of young Democrats and Independents think so.
This makes sex and contraception, as I’ve said before, the perfect wedge issue (as well as, I’d add, the perfect issue to motivate the base—a two-fer). No Republican candidate dare imply that it’s OK if young people have sex before marriage. No one hoping to appeal to younger independents dare imply that it isn’t.
That explains why Rush Limbaugh thinks he’ll get a free pass for calling Sandra Fluke a slut: she is, after all, “an [unmarried] American woman who uses contraception.” But it also explains why Mitt Romney, even before he cravenly changed his position on the Blunt Amendment, said that he didn’t want to get involved in contraceptive decisions “within a relationship between a man and a woman, husband and wife.” Emphasis added. Romney may believe in his heart of hearts (stipulating that he still has such a thing) that it’s not his business whether unmarried couples have sex and use contraception. But he quickly caught himself, because he knows that the Republican base believes no such thing. He’s aspiring to lead an Ozzie and Harriet party in a Big Bang Theory world.
Oh, as for why the Catholic hierarchy is feeling so boxed in on the question: ordinary Catholics are substantially more liberal than the average American on these questions. Orthodox Catholics know this perfectly well, and aren’t happy.
Update: It looks as if Eleanor Clift agrees with me (without having the numbers).