Culture,  Politics

If GOP caves on marriage, why not also on religious liberty?

It was clear in 2012 that Mitt Romney would be the last GOP presidential nominee to defend traditional marriage. Neither Windsor nor Obergefell had yet been handed down, but the writing was on the wall. The country had shifted, and the GOP would eventually reflect that shift. That is why I wrote the following in early 2013:

If demographics is destiny, it is very clear what is going on here. The Republican party’s future will be no different from the Democratic party’s present on the issue of marriage. It also means that social conservatives who insist on public policies supporting traditional marriage will be increasingly alienated from the party. There won’t be a place at the GOP table very much longer for social conservatives who care about this issue.

That is already true in terms of potential presidential candidates. I have said it before, and I will say it again. 2012 was the last time the GOP will ever run a presidential candidate who opposes gay marriage at the level of public policy. Those days are behind us. It is only a matter of time—perhaps a very short time—before a majority of the GOP finds itself in full support of the right of gay people to wed.

The last four years have born this out. GOP politicians do not offer full-throated defenses of traditional marriage anymore. If they speak about it at all, it is usually a passing reference to say that Obergefell was wrongly decided and that marriage law should have been left to the states. That is fine so far as it goes. My point is that it does not go as far as GOP politicians used to go—which included support for a constitutional amendment defining marriage. Things have changed.

If politics is the art of the possible, many GOP politicians seem to have made the calculation that it is no longer possible to advocate for traditional marriage. To do so alienates too many voters, and it is political suicide to do so.

And it is on this political reality that Peter Leithart comments today over at First Things. He writes:

It’s not surprising that marriage has been muted. What surprises is how easily the GOP has fallen into line. If a Republican candidate did the private/public two-step on abortion, his campaign would be abortive. When a candidate does it with marriage, there’s nary a peep. It seems the GOP has determined that marriage isn’t worth much of a fuss. Where are the howls of protest? Where have all the Bad Republicans gone?

Declaring a personal commitment to traditional marriage is nothing more than a sop to social conservatives unless it’s backed up by action. Either marriage is a basic institution of society, or it isn’t. Either family is essential to healthy public life, or it’s not. If the GOP isn’t willing to risk anything to conserve this institution, what is it conserving?

The GOP’s survival tactics may look savvy, but they will backfire. Here as everywhere, you save your life only by losing it.

In other words, Leithart argues that marriage is a hill worth dying on. The GOP, by and large, has decided that it is not.

Right now, all the energy in the GOP on the marriage issue has shifted to a defense of religious liberty. Years ago, the strategic calculation was that the GOP had to do this before the window closes for such protections to be enacted. But if the last couple of years have shown us anything, they’ve shown us that religious liberty vis a vis gay marriage is also becoming increasingly unpopular (as Robbie George presciently predicted four years ago). If you don’t believe me, just look at what has happened in Indiana, Arkansas, and Georgia and what is happening right now to North Carolina and Mississippi.

When defending traditional marriage became politically untenable, the GOP decided it wasn’t a hill to die on. When defending religious liberty becomes equally untenable, how long will it take for the GOP to decide that religious liberty is not a hill to die on either?


  • Luther Wesley

    And this is why a large number of social conservatives and Christians ( who should be socially conservative ) should consider forming s third party.

    In years past I have held my nose and chose the best of the worst candidates but I am increasingly under the conviction that choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil.

  • Chris Taylor

    Denny, it’s hard not to think that the Al Mohler Southern Baptists are partly responsible for this. The way you all pushed Rubio at the expense of Cruz, even when it was clear that Rubio was simply splitting the vote, meant that no conservative was going to be nominated.

    • Denny Burk

      I don’t know what you’re talking about, Chris. I have not and will not endorse any candidate. To my knowledge, Mohler hasn’t endorsed anyone other, and I don’t expect him to.

  • Louis M. Cook, Jr.

    It is a tough pill to swallow but it seems clearer to me that a third party is needed. It might be that this new party will never elect a President but at least it could be a gadfly on abortion, marriage, religious liberty, immigration reform and other issues. Currently “social conservatives’ are just another group that is asked for money and support but is given little in return.

    • Randy Curtis

      I’ve read every plank of the platform of the Constitution Party. It amazes me that a (conservative) Christion or a Constitutiomalist would vote GOP if they have an opportunity to vote their conscience. In years past all have had that opportunity. Most vote for the lesser of two evils.
      We are a nation of laws and not kings. We should serve those laws, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, before we serve a man or woman who we know will bend, stretch or break the law of the land as well as God’s law.

  • Greg Linscott

    Just thinking out loud here… There are plenty of teetotalers who aren’t in favor of reinstating the Prohibition of alcoholic beverages. In the current consideration, we do have this agenda being pushed by those who claim to celebrate a diversity of perspectives and extend liberty to allow for variance in personal practice.The case could be made in the context of the GOP that the kind of religious and personal liberty that has allowed for the legalization of the so-called “gay marriage” has to also allow for the legality of religious organizations to practice their established beliefs on this matter, too… which is certainly not going to be limited to Evangelical Christianity in this country.

  • buddyglass

    Both parties are going to do what it takes to remain relevant at the national level. That means each will structure itself such that its appealing to around 50% of voters.

    If the GOP concludes that making a big deal about marriage at the national level will cost it more votes than it gains, then it will choose not to make a big deal about marriage at the national level.

    State and local contests are obviously a different matter. Republicans running for statewide office in, say, Mississippi, can probably afford to take a hard line on marriage and not worry about losing to a Democrat.

  • Michael Shafran

    Great analysis. Consider Gov of Indiana and especially Georgia. When $$$ and a seat a the table of power is at stake, they bow. I hope the GOP as a whole will not do this but will stand firm on marriage and religious freedom like they supposedly do on abortion. But I seriously doubt it.

  • Gus Nelson

    Ironically, I think part of the evangelical infatuation with Donald Trump arose because the Republican party has generally taken evangelical voters for granted. This is more of the same. John Kasich made this clear a month or two ago when he suggested evangelicals needed to get over gay marriage as an issue. Right now, given the current moral climate, it seems right to obliterate religious liberties, but those who think this is good and right don’t realize they are simply giving the government more power to obliterate other rights, as well. Once you allow the government to stomp all over religious liberty, other liberties are equally at stake. Republicans are complicit with Democrats in desiring this kind of raw power to steamroll the people. Maybe George Wallace was prophetic in 1968 when he said there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Republican party and the Democrat Party.

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