Americans "have a constitutional right to be gay." So said Barry Goldwater, the 1964 right-wing Republican presidential candidate, in 1994. How the Republican Party has changed. Indeed, how the GOP changed goes a long way toward explaining America's national political delirium.
We've grown so accustomed to a Republican Party consumed with gay marriage, abortion, and now even birth control that many Americans likely do not know it was ever any other way. The GOP bills itself as the party of small government and personal liberty, and in an earlier day, when the GOP was the party of women's rights and Planned Parenthood, that claim was true enough. As David Frum recently pointed out, Republicans in the '40s and '50s were the ones who tried to repeal Connecticut's state ban on the sale of birth control, only to be voted down again and again by Democrats.
The Republicans' live-and-let-live tradition first came under lethal attack in the 1970s, in the wake of the sexual revolution and the women's and gay rights movements. Those cultural and social movements revolutionized sex, gender roles, the family, the workplace, and popular culture in the space of a little more than a decade. Simultaneously, and in large part responding to these social movements, Congress outlawed gender discrimination, the Supreme Court ruled that laws against birth control and abortion were unconstitutional, half the states repealed their sodomy laws, and local governments passed anti-discrimination laws to protect gays and lesbians.
Most Americans ultimately welcomed the expansion of personal and sexual freedom. Yet given that the government had long been in the business of legislating puritanical sexual mores, it is understandable that those who thought the old ways were just fine, thank you, chose to wage their reactionary, theologically based crusade through the political system.
The GOP's recent bender over birth control, sex, women, and gays isn't an aberration. It is the logical result of 40 years of sexual counterrevolution.
The sexual counterrevolution began in the early 1970s, when right-wing fundamentalist, Catholic, and Mormon women organized on the grassroots level to turn back the clock. They campaigned against the Equal Rights Amendment, sex education, and gay civil rights. They were unashamed to say that their God and Church decreed that women must be submissive to their husbands and that being gay was evil.
Their first anti-gay campaign, led by the homophobic Baptist fundamentalist Anita Bryant, was the 1977 referendum to repeal a Dade County law barring discrimination against homosexuals. Bryant is an infamous figure in the anti-gay movement. Less well-known is the fact that Bryant also testified against the Equal Rights Amendment in the midst of the referendum campaign -- to great effect. The Florida legislature came up one vote short of ratifying the ERA. Keeping women in their place and gays as second-class citizens were two sides of the same coin -- a point worth remembering amidst the right-wing hysteria over both birth control and gay marriage.
Following their grassroots victories, these sexual fundamentalists infiltrated the Republican Party and methodically took it over from bottom to top. They powered Ronald Reagan's victory over the moderate George H. W. Bush in the 1980 Republican primary. Rewarded with positions in the Reagan administration, they went on to dictate his cruel and neglectful AIDS policy -- over the objections of old-school Republican feminists within his administration. In 1992 the sexual fundamentalists hijacked Bush's reelection campaign and wrote anti-gay discrimination into the GOP platform. In 1996, during the Iowa Republican presidential contest, they introduced the Defense of Marriage Act. In 2000 George W. Bush publicly campaigned as a "different kind of Republican" and a "compassionate conservative," but it was the stealth mobilization of Christian-right sexual fundamentalists that put him in the White House. Sarah Palin, whose roots are deep within the movement, would have remained an obscure Alaskan hockey mom but for their worshipful devotion. As we now know -- and should have known all along -- the Tea Party is largely populated by the sexual fundamentalists of the religious right.
Today's GOP was forged in this crucible, and today's Republican leaders are the captives, not the masters, of the GOP base. That the virulently anti-gay Santorum has been a viable presidential candidate is the surest proof of the outsized power of the sexual fundamentalists. Even more important, Mitt Romney's extreme positions on gays, abortion, and birth control, and Governor Chris Christie's veto of gay marriage, are salutary reminders of who really rules the so-called Republican establishment.
Through dedicated and savvy political organizing, this small minority, who are out of touch with mainstream public opinion, have been able to take control of one of our two political parties. Today the sexual fundamentalists make up only 15 to 20 percent of the electorate, and every year their numbers shrink. Demography and modern values both cut against them, and their days are numbered. But the sexual fundamentalists are not going gently into the night. Their rage has turned the 2012 election into a referendum on the modern world of sexual freedom, religious pluralism, cultural tolerance, gender equality, and LGBT civil rights.
The majority of Americans, who don't want to go backward on women's and gay rights, will have to give as good as we get.
Nancy L. Cohen is a historian and author of the new book, Delirium: How the Sexual Counterrevolution is Polarizing America.