Home/Rod Dreher/Religious Conservatism’s Potemkin Power

Religious Conservatism’s Potemkin Power

Behold, the Potemkin power of religious conservatism (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Longtime readers will remember the story I’ve told here several times. It was the fall of 2015, several months after the Obergefell decision legalizing same-sex marriage. I met privately with some key GOP House and Senate staffers, and asked them what the Republicans were planning legislatively to protect religious liberty in the post-Obergefell environment.

The answer: nothing. No plans at all. Not on their agenda.

I was genuinely stunned. I remember walking across the plaza on the east side of the Capitol after that meeting, thinking, We really are on our own. 

Over the following years, I would hear from people involved in Republican politics on social issues reports that the national Republicans did not want to deal with the gay rights issue. They were either not smart enough to speak articulate a socially conservative position with clarity and conviction, or, as I believe, they lacked the courage to do so — especially given that most deep-pocketed Republican donors are liberals on the issue. Something I heard often from those closer to the political process than I: The Republicans are afraid to be called bigots. 

If you’ve been with me for a few years, you know that I have never argued that Obergefell could be overturned. For a long time, both on this blog and in my 2017 book The Benedict Option, I have argued that gay rights are an increasingly popular cause. What Republicans might have done is come up with a classical liberal case for enacting substantial religious liberty protections. But they didn’t. Most of them said little or nothing. Most said little or nothing when the trans movement began its march through the institutions, including the US military. The Democrats, to their credit, know what they believe on LGBT issues, and don’t have any hesitation standing up for it.

The Republicans? Please.

Look, I get it. It’s a really hard issue. You don’t have a majority of the public with you. And you probably have gay friends that you don’t want to see hurt. I know I do. Personally, I would have been fine with a bill protecting gay and lesbian employees from being fired, as long as there were a strong exemption for religious organizations. You can fairly blame me for not using my little platform here to push for that, not that it would have done much good. But let’s be honest: there was no leadership among the national Republicans. At least President Trump was willing to take the heat for a transgender military ban. But even he, and Republican politicians who supported him, did not articulate why they believe what they do.

If they can’t or won’t talk about these things substantively, it’s no wonder that people think it must be what Justice Anthony Kennedy once called “irrational animus.”

So. Today, a 6-3 majority of the US Supreme Court handed social conservatives a stunning loss. Justice Neil Gorsuch, the Great White-Haired Rationale for religious conservatives sticking with Trump despite everything, wrote the majority opinion. What do Trump and Senate Republicans have to say about the decision?

They’re cool with it, man. From Politico:

The Democratic Senate’s 2013 passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act was the last serious effort in the Senate at legislating on LGBTQ issues and just four GOP senators that supported that bill remain in office. The Republican Senate has shied away from taking up the matter, a reflection of divisions in the GOP over how — or whether to — address the issue.

“It’s the law of the land. And it probably makes uniform what a lot of states have already done. And probably negates Congress’s necessity for acting,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who ran the Senate Judiciary Committee during Gorsuch’s confirmation. He said he was not disappointed by Gorsuch’s decision. Besides Gorsuch, Chief Justice John Roberts also joined the court’s Democrat-appointed justices in the 6-3 ruling.

Of course he wasn’t disappointed! Gorsuch and Roberts did all the heavy lifting for the Senate Republicans! More:

Even those that disagreed with the court’s decision took far more issue with the process than the substance. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said no one should lose their job on the basis of sexual orientation but that he wished the “decision would have been reached by Congress rather than the court.”

“The court is legislating what they think is good policy. And that, to me though, that’s really not their role. I mean I don’t particularly care about their views on policy,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a former Supreme Court clerk. “The right answer is ‘over to Congress’ to do something about it.”

Yes, and I suppose the Senate refusing to take up ENDA is “doing something about it” by not doing anything about it. But where was the GOP leadership explaining why ENDA wasn’t necessary?

(For the record, Politico says that Sen. Ted Cruz criticized today’s decision. But it sounds like he is pretty lonely.)

[UPDATE: Sen. Hawley’s office says that he is much more critical of the decision than the Politico piece indicates, and that I have repeated. See below for more details. — RD]

Again, I ask you: what, from a social conservative viewpoint, is the function of the Republican Party? Maybe:

  1. to separate conservative Christians from their money and their votes
  2. to dose Deplorables anxious about cultural decline with the Pill of Murti-Bing, a drug that induces a sense of happiness and blind obedience

What else?

I’ve heard a lot of despair today from my social and religious conservative friends. None of them see any point in showing up to vote this fall. A lot can change between now and then, but they feel, and I feel, that we don’t ask for much … and that’s what the Republican Party delivers.

That’s not entirely fair, I admit. But on a day like today, on an issue as big as this one, when the US Supreme Court, with two conservative justices voting the with majority, redefines the meaning of “sex” in federal civil rights law — we see with great clarity the powerlessness of social and religious conservatism in this country, the fecklessness of the Republican Party, and the vacuity of religious authority in post-Christian America.

It is a kind of apocalypse — an unveiling. We have had a lot of those this year, haven’t we?

Early this morning, I received a long letter from a reader who strongly objected to my “Douthat’s Choice” post, in which I endorsed Ross Douthat’s view that conservative voters faced a decision over whether or not re-electing Trump would be worse in the long run for conservatism. The reader strenuously, and at length, argued that Douthat and I were wrong. I get lots of e-mail every day, and can’t possibly answer it all. But this reader really put a lot of time into his letter, and though I wasn’t persuaded, I decided that if I found the time today, I would answer him.

Before I could get to it, he sent a follow-up letter, that said simply:

UPDATE: Some conservative Evangelicals who work at Evangelical institutions (they told me their names and affiliations) have reached out to me tonight after reading this. Their collective view: this is a real moment in which we can see the slow-motion collapse of conservative Evangelicalism. What I’m hearing from them (not all from the same person; I’m just going to summarize):

Trumpy Evangelicals have stayed quiet because they can’t bring themselves to acknowledge that their man appointed a Supreme Court justice who ruled against conservative Christian interests in such an important case.

The culture of conservative Evangelicalism is dispositionally optimistic. This means that Evangelicals can’t bring themselves to admit that things are as bad as they really are.

Quote: “The people who say ‘Don’t look fearful because fear is not Christian’ are the people who end up reconciling themselves to the rules and goal lines of liberalism.”

Quote: “The chief sin of Evangelical elites is respectability. The chief sin of bourgeois Evangelicalism is comfort. The chief sin of Evangelicalism in America is cowardice. We’re not racists, darn it. We’re a bunch of theologically illiterate cowards.”

What do you Catholics think? The head of the US Catholic Bishops Conference said today that he was “concerned.” Yeah, that’s about what one expects.

UPDATE.2: This comment from the reader Red Brick resonates with me, though I was never excited by Trump:

I was wrong about Trump and the GOP as well.

As I stand here today a Southern Christian I watch as all (not some) of the statues of our civil war dead are pulled down by mobs and gutless politicians. Jefferson statues are being pulled down as we speak and Washington and the rest of the Founding Fathers to soon follow. Rioting in our streets goes unpunished…some of it a straight up Racist pogrom against white people (and GOP senators like Mitt Romney are marching with the mobs). The internationalist wars continue. Mass illegal immigration continues along with the legal immigration of 1 million foreign people a year, taking jobs millions of Americans desperately need. Wall St is being bailed out while the great small business massacre is taking place. The Supreme Court continues to enshrine and expand the sexual revolution in all areas and the writing is on the wall for Christian colleges and schools.

The GOP has conserved nothing. Taxes breaks for the 1% is all they care about.

I am done. I am spiritually and emotionally exhausted at being a supporter of a party like the GOP.

UPDATE.3: Sen. Hawley’s office reached out to say that the Politico piece, and this blog, mischaracterizes the senator’s view of the Bostock decision. He is very critical of it. He sent this tweet out last night:

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

leave a comment

Latest Articles