With gay marriage accepted even within the GOP, one battle in the ‘culture wars’ has been won. But new fronts are opening
by Katherine Stewart, The Guardian, April 7, 2013
Opponents of same-sex marriage at the supreme court. Photograph: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
Is there a Reformation taking place in the Republican party? The word on the street that the party of “straights” is starting to bend, especially on the issue of same-sex marriage.
In February, 131 noted Republicans signed an amicus brief submitted to the US supreme court arguing that marriage is a fundamental right that should not be denied to gay and lesbian Americans. RNC Chair Reince Priebus has said that the party should not “divide and subtract” members who support marriage equality. Senators Mark Kirk and Rob Portman are the most recent GOP politicians to come out in support of marriage equality. Even Bill O’Reilly, who as recently as 2009 compared same-sex marriage to marriage between people and turtles, now appears to be backtracking, accusing its opponents of lacking “compelling argument(s)” and merely “thump(ing) the Bible”.
At the same time, there seem to be an awful lot of people in the GOP who haven’t gotten the message. Last week, rising star Dr Benjamin Carson compared same-sex relationships to pedophilia and bestiality; Kansas‘s Tim Huelscamp claims that “redefining matrimony will destroy the family”; the Republican marriage equality group GOProud was banned from co-sponsoring this year’s CPAC. Newt Gingrich predicts that the GOP will be “torn” over the issue.
Whoever wins the debate over same-sex marriage – and it does seem to be a matter of when, not if, a more moderate stance will prevail – it would be a mistake to suppose all of this portends an end to the culture wars. The idea that a shift in Republican positions on an issue like this signals a major underlying transformation of the party overlooks a lot of history. It confuses the alleviation of a symptom with the treatment of a cause.
Same-sex marriage is just one in a series with which the Republican party has stoked the culture wars. Immigration, reproductive freedom, school-sponsored prayer, and other issues have all come with the same baggage and served the same purposes.
The first and most important fact to know about these issues is that they are all essentially reactive. That is, they aren’t so much about achieving specific policy goals as about expressing a certain attitude toward developments in modern culture. They reflect broader fears and anxieties over the pace and nature of social change, and often involve a sense of personal or collective resentment. Sarah Palin, in her inimitable way, gets to the crux of the matter in one of her ads for SarahPAC:
“Don’t let them invalidate you!”
Which brings up the second obvious aspect about these issues: that they will be with us as long as there are political actors and business interests that have an interest in promoting and exploiting them for their own gain. If one scapegoat gets away, there will always be another to take its place. In fact, there is no shortage of replacements for the fading attack on gay rights.
One of the newer sources of potential conflict is the religious right’s novel idea of “religious liberty”. Religious freedom used to mean freedom from having other people impose their religion on you. Now, it apparently means the freedom to impose your religion on others.
If you are an employer, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, religious freedom requires that you get to decide which healthcare services are appropriate for your employees. Given that the government necessarily does many things that conflict with one or another religious view, and given that we are all obligated to pay taxes to support the government, this line of reasoning will supply religious conservatives with an endless string of heinous violations of their “religious liberty”.
When public schools are required to teach science rather than dogma; when city councils in diverse communities are told to refrain from opening their meetings with sectarian prayers; when anyone seeks to staunch the flow of government money to faith-based groups that engage in discriminatory practices … basically, wherever you see an attempt to enforce the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state, noisy allegations of violations of “religious liberty” are sure to follow.
These allegations, like the so-called “war on Christmas”, are absurd. In a modern society as diverse as ours, there are any number of social norms that will be at odds with somebody’s religion somewhere. But for religious hardliners, anything that happens to fall afoul of their beliefs – and their desire to impose those beliefs on others – can now be construed as an infringement on their religious freedom.
Yet another source of conflict continues to come from one of the issues that got it all started: abortion. Abortion at the state level has become a genuine wedge issue; there are more aggressive efforts than ever on that score, with politicians in dozens of states imposing draconian restrictions on women’s access to reproductive care.
It would be naive to think that dispensing with the conflicts over same-sex marriage will flatout end the culture war. Just because a group or regime identifies a scapegoat as the root of its problems does not mean that that scapegoat has anything remotely to do with its problems. If they do manage to eliminate a problem, the group will just find another scapegoat.
But the fracturing of the GOP’s stance on same-sex marriage does point to a reason for optimism. Political actors will always seek to exploit resentments. But the resentments will go away to the extent that people come to understand that their own problems have nothing to do with the demons with which they have long been associated. The more people realize that the problems facing their children have nothing to do with the gay couple next door, the harder they are to manipulate.
Change also comes from those who understand that the valuable parts of any religion – the instructions to love thy neighbor and so on – are not compatible with bigotry and division. If the price of commitment to religion is support for the politics of hate, then the price is simply too high.