Conservatives Explain Why They Lost On Marriage

06/30/2015 11:03 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

You could imagine Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell turning in his grave when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide on Friday.

It was a stunning, stinging loss for the religious right, a group whose power little more than a decade ago seemed ascendant. When George W. Bush was elected in 2000, more Americans said they voted for him because of "moral values" than any other reason.

Cut to June 26, 2015, when the court's gay marriage ruling set off rejoicing among gay rights supporters across the country. The White House lit up in rainbow colors to commemorate the decision, as did the Empire State Building and One World Trade Center in New York City. Major U.S. corporations including Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, AT&T, McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Disney, Macy's, Target, Visa and Budweiser rushed to show their support with statements and pro-gay marketing materials.

Support for gay marriage now stands at over 60 percent -- up an astounding 25 points from just over a decade ago.

Amid the electricity outside the court on Friday, where gay rights supporters danced, chanted and waved signs, Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, delivered a somber statement. "We need to be the people who know how to articulate a Christian vision of sexuality that will be increasingly countercultural from this point on," he said.

There are a few questions on the minds of social conservatives in the wake of the landmark ruling: How did we get here? What mistakes did we make? And who are we in this new America?

In an interview, Moore told The Huffington Post that one of the movement's main mistakes in the gay marriage fight was assuming traditionalists would always have public opinion on their side. Social conservatives didn't anticipate or prepare for the dramatic turnabout in national sentiment on this issue over the last 10 years, he said, assuming they'd always operate from a position of strength in the culture war. They believed that fundamentally, Americans shared their values.

"I think that many pro-marriage people assumed that we would always represent a majority in American opinion," Moore said. "For a while, that was true. But we needed to be prepared to argue for something that is right regardless of whether or not the majority of Americans agree with us. I think that was a key error."

Hardly anyone anticipated the huge shift in public opinion on gay rights. There's no consensus on what caused it, but one factor cited by scholars and pollsters is the increasing visibility of the gay community.

"The culture is changing, and the reason it's changing, I believe more than anything else, is that most of us know gay people, and many of us have people within our own families who have come out as gay or lesbian," said Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Dartmouth College and the author of First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty.

Maggie Gallagher, the founder and former president of the National Organization for Marriage -- the leading advocacy group fighting against advances for gay rights around the nation -- agreed that religious conservatives had failed to recalibrate as the culture shifted. She still sees social conservatives as clinging to the past.

"I would say the 'Moral Majority' strategy of diffuse public outrage rather than focused and organized political involvement has run its course," Gallagher wrote in an email. "I do not yet see this reassessment taking place and adoption of new and effective strategies. I see people clinging to the old models."

Gallagher also pointed out that despite decades of organizing, the Christian right has failed to establish lasting political institutions to channel social conservatives' influence.

"If I wanted to tell donors to give money to help elect say, a pro-marriage president or Congress (pro-marriage in the sense I understand it), there is no clear vehicle to do so," Gallagher wrote in an email. "Amazingly after 35 years of 'Christian conservative' involvement in politics, there are no such institutions."

Moore added that the movement had also failed to put a humane face on its opposition to same-sex unions, though he said he thinks this was not the primary reason for the loss.

"There were some people speaking to this issue from my side who were angry and presented a public face of outrage in a way that I don't think was helpful," Moore said. "Evangelicals don't dislike our gay and lesbian neighbors, and we don't mean them harm."

Social conservatives differ on whether they think this loss is temporary -- some think it's not, while others think opponents of same-sex marriage can still win the long game. But even Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in his withering, histrionic dissent to Friday's ruling: "Until the courts put a stop to it, public debate over same-sex marriage displayed American democracy at its best ... But the Court ends this debate."

Defeat Accepted, Now What?

Perhaps the most telling indication that social conservatives as a whole have accepted defeat on same-sex marriage, even if they haven't conceded the larger culture war, is how they've changed their battle tactics. As their power has waned in the fight over sexuality in the public square, they have switched gears from fighting the inevitable tide to exempting themselves from the new social order in the form of "religious liberty" legislation.

"Those who opposed gay rights for so long and really held the public agenda now see themselves as retreating to an enclave" that's protected by the right to religious freedoms, said Katherine Franke, the director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia Law School. Franke launched a think-tank last year to address the rise of so-called religious liberty laws. "That's such a shift, to see themselves having gone from established norms to being the discriminated minority themselves," she said.

Religious liberty bills have taken a number of forms in the states that have considered them, but most seek to protect people like county clerks who don't want to issue marriage licenses to gay couples or wedding vendors who refuse to provide services for gay couples.

Getting these laws passed has proved politically difficult. One such bill that was passed in the Arizona legislature came under immediate fire from critics who said it would allow businesses and public employees to discriminate against gay people. The nationwide outcry over the Arizona law led Gov. Jan Brewer (R) to veto the legislation. Similar legislation passed in Indiana, but Gov. Mike Pence (R) retreated after threats of boycotts from around the country, signing legislation that explicitly prohibits discrimination against gay people.

"Increasingly, we are seeing claims for religious liberty offered as justification for discrimination by individuals and organizations," said James Esseks, director of the LGBT Project at the ACLU and counsel on the pro-marriage equality side in the Obergefell v. Hodges case. "Some of the bills that were proposed caused such an uproar where it's been clear to the public in, for instance, Indiana, that this law was actually designed to authorize discrimination against gay people, that was its primary purpose."

Whether or not someone thinks requiring a religious baker to make a cake for a gay wedding constitutes discrimination, what's behind these laws is a fear that religious folk will not only become social pariahs in a country where same-sex marriage is legal nationwide, but also that they could be subject to legal sanction under nondiscrimination laws for acting in concert with their beliefs.

"What it looks like could happen if you get more decisions finding religious owners of businesses in violation of nondiscrimination laws is that people with certain religious views will be confronted with a choice: either sacrifice some of religious commitments or get out of this business," said Steven Smith, a professor at University of San Diego School of Law. "I think it's understandable that that sort of choice is scary to people."

Many on the gay rights side find it difficult to sympathize with religious conservatives' predicament. Gays and lesbians have faced decades of discrimination and social disapproval: They've been subjected to violence, vilified as pedophiles, banned from working in government, stripped of parenting rights and denied the freedom to marry.

And while lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans are now officially equal when it comes to pledging their lives to one another in marriage, gay rights supporters and religious conservatives are still fighting in courts and legislatures across the country. Those who lost in last week's ruling are licking their wounds, regrouping and doing some serious soul-searching.

"We will right this ship on marriage," said Bob Vander Plaats of the conservative Family Leader group. "It's just going to be dependent on how long it will take us to get there. I do believe that a future generation will say, 'What were these guys thinking?'"

CORRECTION: This article initially stated that Steven Smith is a professor at San Diego State University; he has a position at the University of San Diego. We regret the error.

Gabriel Arana is senior media editor at The Huffington Post.

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