For all of the media’s hyperventilating about the GOP’s “culture war,” most Republicans show little to no interest in fighting it. In truth, the “culture war” is hopelessly one-sided, pitting tenacious Democrats against irresolute or decadent Republicans. Take Nancy Pelosi’s recent gay marriage bill. It passed in the House of Representatives not in spite of the GOP but in part because of it: 47 Republicans, including members of GOP leadership, joined the Democrats in supporting the bill.
Imagine the cries of horror from the media and the Democratic base if 47 Democrats ever voted for a piece of GOP legislation on a crucial social issue. That’s inconceivable. The Democrats never wave the white flag in the culture war. But the GOP can’t even summon the energy to back Bill Clinton’s Defense of Marriage Act. That’s now considered an “extreme” stance by many GOP elites.
What makes it easy for Republican leaders and strategists to exploit the religious right without losing it is that Christians have nowhere else to go.
Brendan Buck, a former top aide to Paul Ryan and John Boehner, tweeted out gloatingly to his woke GOP friends after Pelosi’s bill passed, “I don’t know what Senators need to hear this, but it’s safe to support gay marriage in the year 2022. You’re gonna be okay.” Sadly, he is probably right. Even though the GOP’s platform has long said that the preservation of the traditional family is central to the common good, its leaders clearly don’t believe that anymore and will do nothing to deter those who voted for Pelosi’s bill. Among the Republicans who supported it are GOP leaders Elise Stefanik, Tom Emmer, and House Freedom Caucus Chair Scott Perry.
As Politico put it in 2021, “The Republican Party has moved on from one of the most seminal culture war debates, even as evangelicals fume.” The story noted that Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel sends out “Pride Month” tweets and that plans are afoot to change the condemnation of gay marriage in the party’s platform. It quoted an unnamed Republican official who said that a “vamped up effort” to revise the 2024 platform is underway.
Meanwhile, five Senate Republicans have already announced that they will support the Senate’s version of Pelosi’s gay marriage bill: Ron Johnson, Rob Portman, Thomas Tillis, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski. Other Senate Republicans sound like they are leaning toward supporting the bill. “I’m keeping a very open mind,” says Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa. “I have a good number of very close friends that are same-sex married.” The Senate Democrats have been emboldened by the number of House Republicans who supported gay marriage.
Once again, the religious right finds itself out of luck. The GOP secure its votes, then scoffs at its values. Speaking to a Christian forum in Iowa recently, Fox News host Tucker Carlson said that the GOP leadership class views Evangelicals as “freaks” even though they provide “manpower, a lot of the money, all the genuine, excited non-cynical political energy” in the party.
Of course, GOP leaders have been conning the religious right for years. Karl Rove and company got George W. Bush reelected in 2004 on the promise to “values voters” that he would fight gay marriage. In subsequent years, they didn’t lift a finger to fight it. It came out later that Bush’s political director during that period, Ken Mehlman, is a gay-rights activist. For all of his “Born Again” Christian talk, Bush has almost no interest in the culture war, as evident in the fact that he couldn’t even bring himself to issue a press release praising Samuel Alito, his appointment to the court, for toppling Roe v. Wade. (Bush deserves credit for Alito, though his first choice was Harriet Miers, who surely wouldn’t have voted against Roe.)
What makes it easy for Republican leaders and strategists to exploit the religious right without losing it is that Christians have nowhere else to go. They have to content themselves with the crumbs that fall from the GOP table. And because the positions of the Democrats are increasingly outlandish, it takes less and less for a Republican leader to appear like a “culture warrior” against them. The media slaps that moniker on almost any Republican who even slightly deviates from wokeness. But most of those Republicans don’t oppose the LGBTQ movement in principle. They accept the subjectivism underlying it. They just wince at some of its most obvious excesses and balk at the speed of the movement’s unfolding.
Many Republicans today are to the left of where Bill Clinton and moderate Democrats stood in the 1990s. The bipartisan passage of Pelosi’s bill is a depressing measure of how much ground the GOP has lost since the days of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act. Far from winning the culture war, the GOP is eking out minor victories in minor battles fought deep within liberal territory.
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