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What does the “Republican wave” mean for social conservatives?

I am not a political scientist nor the son of a political scientist. So feel free to take the following reflections with the appropriate grain of salt and not as the definitive analysis of last night’s election results. Having said that, I think it might be helpful to think about what the “Republican wave” means for social conservatives.

I am a social conservative, which for me means that I put a high value on public policies relating to the sanctity of life, the definition of marriage, and religious liberty. These aren’t the only things I care about, but they are on the top shelf for me. What does last night mean for public policy on those issues? What does it mean for the party that is typically associated with advancing those issues?

Americans are still deeply divided on the issue of abortion, but they are still more pro-life than many reports would have you believe. Voters in Colorado and North Dakoda rejected measures that might have limited abortion at life’s earliest stages. But in Tennessee voters added language to the state constitution that reads, “Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion.” Also, the attempt to defeat pro-life candidates through “war on women” rhetoric was a failure. On the life issue, perhaps the most significant thing that happened last night is that the Republicans have taken back control of the Senate. That means that there will be more margin for Republicans to oppose the appointment of federal judges who might rule in favor of abortion rights.

On the definition of marriage, I don’t think the needle moved very much. On the good side of the ledger, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Thom Tillis of North Carolina both ran explicitly pro-marriage campaigns, and both won. On the negative side, both of these were in the south and are probably not indicative of nationwide trends. I still think that legal gay marriage in all fifty states is a fait accompli at this point. It’s no longer a matter of “if” but “when.” And I get the feeling that the new Senate majority would like to move-on from that issue going forward. The seats that will be in play in 2016 do not favor Republicans. In two short years, an unfavorable electoral map will be a real challenge to the new majority. Senate Republicans are not likely to push any issue that they view as a loser, and right now opposing gay marriage is a loser for them. The most we can hope for from Senate Republicans at this point are rearguard movements, but nothing that would halt their overall retreat on the marriage issue. Voters who care about marriage would do well to stand up as these politicians are standing down.

In general, I think that Republicans are increasingly coming to the conclusion that pushing culture war is a loser for them. They may find some utility in it for arousing the base, but they do not see these issues as the winners that they used to be. That means that even religious liberty issues are likely not going to be defining issues for them. Yes, Senator Ted Cruz might speak up for the Houston pastors whose sermons were subpoenaed by an overreaching mayor. But he is an outlier. The mainstream has gone mainstream on social issues, and nothing that happened last night will change that.

In 2012, the Republican Party platform included language affirming life and a traditional definition of marriage. While the pro-life plank is likely to be unmoved, it is difficult to see the pro-marriage plank surviving 2016. No Republican wave can overcome the seismic shift in American attitudes on the marriage issue. And that means that the party is likely to descend into conflict with its social conservative base before and during the next election cycle. I did not see anything last night that would forestall that inevitable battle. For that reason, it is all the more important for social conservatives to hold the line. It is better to lose standing on principle than to win by surrendering principle. Even if some Republicans are putting their finger to the wind, we can’t. Let’s not give up on marriage.


  • buddyglass

    Agree with almost everything here. Though, I think the traditional marriage plank might survive. Republicans don’t want to be obviously okay with same-sex marriage. They just want to not have to talk about it all the time. So the “official” stance of the party could remain the same, but there may be a behind-the-scenes shift where individual Republicans just stop bringing it up unless asked. To an extent that’s already happened.

  • buddyglass

    What will be interesting is the GOP presidential primary in 2016. The first-choice of social conservatives is probably Cruz, or Carson, but neither seems especially likely to win the nomination. An acceptable third-choice might be Paul Ryan, who still has an outside chance at winning the primary. All of the “most likely” guys, though, are flawed from the perspective of a “strongly conservative” Republican. Christie, Paul, Bush and Rubio. More so the first three, but Rubio’s immigration reform stance likely won’t be acceptable to many among the far right.

  • Ryan Davidson

    I don’t see much movement, at least not in the direction you’re seeking. In Illinois, we (the GOP) did well, winning three state-wide races (including governor) and taking two Congressional seats. In the Chicago market, these candidates generally ran on a socially moderate platform. By contrast, the socially conservative Republican governor of deep-red Kansas struggled to win.

    If last night’s election says anything, it’s that Rand Paul stands a good chance of being the next President. If social conservatives again back another ideological candidate who has no chance of winning the primary, they will further doom themselves to irrelevance. In many ways, guys like Santorum and Huckabee are to the GOP what Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are to the Dems.

  • James Stanton

    Great thoughts, Denny.

    What’s clear is the ascendancy of libertarianism in the United States. A number of Republicans won state-wide elections in competitive states by running as economic conservatives and social moderates.

    I don’t think Ted Cruz has a strong path to victory but Rand Paul was a clear winner last night.

    The core purpose of the Republican party is to promote an agenda that serves first the interests of business and the wealthy. This has been the case for over a hundred years. Social conservatives are an important part of the post 1970s coalition but their votes are taken for granted. There’s really no one else to vote for while remaining influential.

    The best thing to happen to the Republican party in the last few years is that the courts have intervened in the marriage issue. The Supreme Court will decide and all Republican politicians have to do is give some winks and nods here and there to show they still support the traditional family and agree that marriage should be between a man and a woman. The social conservatives will still vote for Republicans as long as the pro-life plank exists and in the hope that one day they can remake the judiciary in their image.

    • Ryan Davidson


      Indeed. The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the same-sex marriage cases from the Fourth, Seventh, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits was a huge gift to the GOP.

  • Paul Reed

    In theory, things should be looking good for the pro-life movement. The Republicans haven’t been in a better position since right after civil war. Having said that, pro-life leaders have a distinct way of being able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

  • Curt Day

    Do we see why social conservatives are becoming more and more irrelevant? Outside of the abortion issue, social conservatives are only trying to control society so that it is a place that not distasteful for them. And they do while not saying a word about how the love of money and tribalism are destroying lives and wrecking the world. It is only in the abortion issue that we express any kind of concern for the life of others and that in itself discredits our opposition to abortion. When will social conservatives wake up to the world around them? For as long as social conservatives remain so insular, those who are Christians will continue to lose the credibility needed to effectively preach the Gospel except to other social conservatives.

    • Kenneth Abbott

      Curt, I don’t depend upon my credibility when preaching the gospel to anybody. I depend upon the power of the Holy Spirit’s inspired word.

      And on the matter of insularity, are you really so sure that concern for the lives of others is expressed solely on the topic of abortion? Or that no one is talking about greed, materialism, widows, orphans, and the poor because we’re in such a rush to get out and picket the local abortuary?

      • Curt Day

        We all depend on others who claim to be Christian for our credibility. For when Christians sin, sometimes it causes others to curse God because we claim to represent Him. And yes, how much emphasis is being put on the plight of those who are victims of war, economic system, destruction of the environment, and so forth in comparison with what is put on the same-sex marriage issue?

  • Ken Temple

    I still think that legal gay marriage in all fifty states is a fait accompli at this point. It’s no longer a matter of “if” but “when.”

    If it is a “fait accompli”; then when it actually happens in all 50 states, we will still have the freedom to say from the pulpit and in evangelism and apologetics, “it is sin and wrong and immoral” and “it is not a true marriage” ??

  • Robert Karl

    Ken Temple is correct. Just because an act is legally acceptable by civil law does not make it not a grave sin in our religious beliefs. And all Christians should stand up for this. Holy Scriptures is very clear on this -(statements of Jesus himself are very clear on this) many times over.

    • James Bradshaw

      Robert, it’s perfectly legal to take the Lord’s name in vain, isn’t it? It’s also perfectly legal to become drunk in one’s own home (so long as one doesn’t get behind the wheel of a car). It’s legal to worship what you would consider “false gods”. It’s legal to fornicate.

      Perhaps you would have things differently and make all of these things crimes as well. I don’t know.

      Think of what this does, though: it limits the function of government to protecting individual liberties and the safety of all its citizens, not to serving as a proxy for God Himself. You really don’t want to grant the State the ability to control the most private and personal decisions of its citizens when it impacts no one but them. You’d be asking for far more government, not less.

      Of course, liberty must be balanced with a consideration for the common good. It’s why we outlaw very addictive and dangerous drugs (like heroin), speeding and theft.

      Given all this, how it “protects the common good” to deny gay men and women the ability to enjoy legal protections for their relationships under ANY name is unclear to me, though. Perhaps someone can enlighten me.

      • buddyglass

        “Perhaps someone can enlighten me.”

        Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with them, are you really not familiar with the arguments of those who oppose legal recognition of same-sex marriages?

  • James Bradshaw

    Buddy asks: “are you really not familiar with the arguments of those who oppose legal recognition of same-sex marriages?”

    I am, but I can’t recall an argument that was not an appeal to Biblical morality or some notion of marriage as an ideal that should be expected of the entire populace without regard to the reality of anyone’s life or the burden it might place on them.

    No one argues that lifelong marriage for heterosexuals only somehow benefits all heterosexuals (and certainly not gay men and women) in a tangible and quantifiable way. They only insist that Marriage (c) must be defended for its own sake.

    I think this is backwards (although I do think it’s worthwhile to have an ideal of what marriage could be and what folks should strive for).

    • buddyglass

      Without comment on whether I find them compelling, here are three I’ve heard that don’t appeal to biblical morality per se:

      1. Legal recognition of same-sex marriages will accelerate adoption of the view that they are functionally equivalent to heterosexual marriages and, more generally, that same-sex relationships are interchangeable with heterosexual ones. Removing whatever stigma remains with respect to homosexuality will result in more people embracing the homosexual lifestyle, which is bad for them in terms of mental and physical health.

      2. Legalizing same-sex marriage will lead to more same-sex couples adopting children (or having their own by way of surrogates) at a higher rate, and being raised by two dads or two moms is bad for kids in terms of mental and emotional health relative to the baseline of being raised by a mom and a dad.

      3. Legal recognition of same-sex marriages will bring about the passage of anti-discrimination laws that violate the religious liberty of Christian bakers, photographers, florists and facilities owners who cannot, in good conscience, participate in the celebration of a same-sex relationship.

      • James Bradshaw

        I won’t bother rebutting every one of those points. I’ve done it too many times to count.

        Regarding this, though: “Removing whatever stigma remains with respect to homosexuality will result in more people embracing the homosexual lifestyle”

        I’m not sure what that means. Do people really believe that heterosexuality is a choice and that, were it not for this “stigma”, homosexuality would be rampant in society?

        I know of someone who used to work as a male escort for a number of years. From what I was told, around 75-80% of his clients were married men (married to women), most of whom grew up in areas or in a time when this stigma was more prevalent than it is today. I can also tell you that the utilization of male prostitutes and escorts is more common amongst these types than my “out” gay friends who are comfortable in their own skin and who have embraced their orientation. In the latter case, most are either dating or are looking for something resembling a commitment.

        My point is that this stigma does not, in fact, serve society better at all. Not for gay men and women, and certainly not for their heterosexual spouses or children who in most cases are going to be lied to on an tragic scale.

        • buddyglass

          “I won’t bother rebutting every one of those points. I’ve done it too many times to count.”

          That’s why I said it was a little disingenuous of you to (seemingly) act as if you weren’t aware of any pragmatic arguments against same-sex marriage. 🙂 I kinda figured you had heard the arguments before.

          “I’m not sure what that means. Do people really believe that heterosexuality is a choice and that, were it not for this “stigma”, homosexuality would be rampant in society?”

          Not that exactly, but something approaching that. That is, I don’t think they think it would be “rampant” if the stigma disappeared, but that it might be more common. Homosexual practice, certainly, if not orientation.

  • Ken Temple

    “Same sex marriage” does not exist, because it is by definition and language NOT a marriage. To allow it is harmful and confusing to society. It confuses young people. Homosexual sex is by nature harmful to the two people engaging in it. Already we are seeing young people just experimenting with all sorts of things and going back and forth; and the push to let children and teens decide what they are – if they are male or female, etc. or “gay” or straight, etc. is just madness; because they are not even mature enough to decide on many things in life yet.

    One of the pioneers of the feminist and gay movement from the late 60s onward, Camille Paglia – admits that homosexuality is not an inborn trait.

    A Psychiatrist at John Hopkin’s admits that Transgenderism and wanting a sex-change is a mental disorder.

  • Ken Temple

    Hi Buddy,
    yeah; I understand your point. Your point goes to the whole separation of church and state issue. My point is that even atheists, skeptics, and other unbelievers and, and even criminals, even though the Protestant Reformation and Enlightenment paved the way for the separation of church and state and the doing away of persecution of heretics and false religions (in the west); they all still realized that homosexuality was a shameful thing, and wrong thing and a sin and harmful to society.

    Of course, if it happens, then we still must speak out against it.

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