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The Lessons of Social Conservatism’s Setbacks

No matter what the Supreme Court decides to do about the Defense of Marriage Act or California’s Proposition 8, it seems a foregone conclusion that gay marriage will one day prevail nationally.

Millions will celebrate—and social conservatives should reflect. For the coming defeat on marriage lays bare the flaws in their political strategies.

First, conservative Christians disregarded Psalms and put their trust in princes. White evangelicals, the largest single bloc of “values voters,” cast one out of every three votes George W. Bush received in 2004.

It wasn’t wrong to get involved in politics and try to reshape the Republican Party per se. But too many of them believed against all available evidence that the nation’s salvation lay in GOP presidents, legislators, and judges. That faith turned out to be misplaced.

Other social conservatives sold their souls for a mess of pottage, climbing the greasy pole of the Republican Party without holding its leaders accountable. Too much political capital was spent on dead-on-arrival constitutional amendments and promises to retake the Supreme Court.

If the Court strikes down the Defense of Marriage Act, social conservatives may regret not simply dusting off Article III, Section II of the U.S. Constitution. Jurisdiction stripping actually could be achieved with a Republican president and Congress.

A Republican-controlled House actually passed the Marriage Protection Act with the blessing of the Bush administration. It might have kept the Supremes from hearing the DOMA case entirely. But social conservatives instead focused on the ill-fated federal marriage amendment.

Nancy Pelosi recently sneered [1] that this legislation concedes the unconstitutionality of DOMA. On the contrary, it simply says that if state marriage laws aren’t under federal jurisdiction then this applies to the federal courts too. The insight isn’t limited to marriage; it is relevant to social issues ranging from abortion to school prayer.


Too often politically active social conservatives failed to make the positive case for traditional marriage as an institution that arose specifically to meet needs that derive from heterosexual sex. Instead they relied on moral objections to, as well as personal distaste for, homosexuality, already in decline back when only 27 percent of the American people favored redefining marriage.

Emphasizing the reasons American law and custom traditionally defined marriage as a union of a man and a woman might have helped salvage as much of the marriage culture as possible even if same-sex marriage supporters still ultimately won the debate. It also might have awakened the country to the growing divergence between the private and public purposes of marriage. Instead many social conservatives hoped to re-stigmatize homosexuality.

Social conservatives avoided compromises, like decoupling some incidents of marriage from the institution itself and extending them to individuals regardless of relationship status. While this wouldn’t have satisfied those whose main goal was “marriage equality” in culture and law, it might have met the need for tangible benefits like hospital visitation without the “separate but equal” approach of civil unions or domestic partnerships—which social conservatives opposed in any event.

The end result is that millions of Americans, especially the young, now believe, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat put it [2], that “the procreative understanding of [marriage] was founded entirely on prejudice, and that the shift away from a male-female marital ideal is analogous to the end of segregation.”

That view, if taken to its logical conclusion, has the potential to be far more destructive to marriage and the family than anything gays and lesbians could possibly do.

It also has obvious implications for the religious liberties of millions of Catholics, Southern Baptists, nondenominational evangelicals, Mormons, and even United Methodists whose churches still affirm traditional moral teachings concerning homosexuality and marriage.

Most gay marriage laws currently contain religious freedom clauses protecting churches and, in some cases, individual believers. But if such views really are morally equivalent to racism in the minds of our political class, one must expect the law eventually to treat them equivalently.

Some form of détente in the culture wars might once have been possible, recognizing that neither gays nor conservative Christians are going away anytime soon (or are entirely mutually exclusive), when the fight was more evenly matched. But a defeated group of traditionalists who evinced little concern for prerogatives of their opponents won’t be in much of a position to make bargains.

Which brings us to what might be the biggest political miscalculation of the Christian right: entering politics to make sinners virtuous rather than to defend their own freedom of conscience.

W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the forthcoming book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? [3]

153 Comments (Open | Close)

153 Comments To "The Lessons of Social Conservatism’s Setbacks"

#1 Comment By sestamibi On April 12, 2013 @ 7:24 pm

What’s revealing about same-sex marriage is how little it has been embraced in places where it became legal. This shows that the whole point was not for gays to marry each other, but to ram down society’s throat a pernicious initiative and then tell us that not only must we accept it, but that we must also exalt it.

The other objective of the same-sex marriage movement is to open the door to limitless combinations: group marriages, marriage to blood relatives, marriage to animals–you name it. And in their continuous effort to be “open minded” and “enlightened”, the American people, in their stupidity, have decided that there is no idea too looney to be embraced in that manner.

In the long run, all these perversions will fade or disappear, because liberals (at least white liberals) are dying off without breeding, and future generations of evangelical Christians, Orthdox Jews, and Muslims will not look quite as kindly on their ideas. That is, unless Melissa Harris-Perry has her way.

#2 Comment By Annek On April 12, 2013 @ 8:43 pm

GregJustice said:

“The family as an institution is much weaker now than at any other point in the nation’s history so many people probably say: ‘What the heck’.

…..In reality, many two heterosexual parent homes are dysfunctional these days so again, people probably say: ‘What the heck’.”

A lot of people do seem to be saying, “What the heck.” However, that is not a great way to make good policy or create a great culture/country. It’s a cop-out. As a country, we should be focusing on how to strengthen marriage, not participating in its demise. Gay marriage is largely unchartered territory and nobody knows how it will play out or what impact it might have on our country.

#3 Comment By Tracy On June 26, 2013 @ 4:59 pm

What your argument fails to recognize is the reality of changing social norms that pre-date the legal issues. As more and more gays and lesbians come out to their families, friends, neighbors, and colleagues, it becomes increasingly difficult to view homosexuals as an “other” to be feared or ostracized. And if you no longer fear a person simply because of their sexual orientation, reducing it to having as much significance as whether a person is left or right-handed, then it becomes impossible to justify relegating that group of American citizens to a lower classification simply because they are not like the majority of the population. It is because of this seachange in people’s perception of gay and lesbians that the legal issues are being pursued and won. There are no tactics the Christian Conservatives could have made, in hindsight, that would have forestalled or prevented what has happened in the legal system and, more important, what will inevitably transpire. My hope is each of you who fear someone who is not of the same sexual orientation take this God-given opportunity to find someone who’s homosexual, sit down and talk with them as you would with anyone else, with an open mind and heart. You’ll find we’re a lot like you, for good and for bad and for boring. Really. We’re mostly super boring. Who else would fight for the right to GET married?