Romney appeared at America’s largest evangelical university—a school founded by Jerry Falwell, which teaches that Mormonism is a cult—to shore up his relationship with the Christian right. Just days earlier, of course, President Obama outraged the movement by announcing his support for marriage equality, and social conservatives hoped Romney would capitalize on the issue. “This is a very potent weapon, if you will, for Governor Romney if he’s willing to step up and take advantage of a president who is very much out of touch with the values of America,” Rick Santorum told an Arkansas TV interviewer on Friday. Nevertheless, Romney’s speech showed a remarkable reluctance to engage in anti-gay demagoguery.
Indeed, his anodyne remarks touched only briefly on the debate over gay rights. Speaking about the role of the family in American life, he said, “As fundamental as these principles are, they may become topics of democratic debate. So it is today with the enduring institution of marriage. Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman.” And that was it. He devoted twice as many words to his praise of Chick-fil-A.
Romney’s main nod to culture-war rhetoric was in his theological explanation for American preeminence: “You enter a world with civilizations and economies that are far from equal,” he said, arguing that central to “America’s rise to global leadership is our Judeo-Christian tradition, with its vision of the goodness and possibilities of every life.” This plays into the Christian right’s belief that the United States was founded to be a Christian nation, but there’s nothing in it to freak out moderates, who will likely hear it as a predictable affirmation of American exceptionalism.
Romney’s reticence on gay marriage doesn’t likely stem from any personal reluctance to discuss social issues, since he’s been voluble on such issues in the past. In a video from 2004 dug up by American Bridge, a liberal SuperPac, he even seemed to suggest that a kid with one dead straight parent would be better off than the child of a living gay couple.
“If a mother or a father is deceased, the child can learn about the qualities of their departed parent,” he said during a congressional hearing. “His or her psychological development can still be influenced by the contrasting features of both genders.”
We don’t know if Romney has evolved since then, but public attitudes certainly have. In 2004, opposition to gay marriage was crucial to George W. Bush’s reelection strategy. That year, anti-gay-marriage ballot initiatives galvanized Christian conservative turnout in swing states like Ohio, and overall, more than a fifth of voters cited “moral values” as their chief concern. A mere eight years later, though, the GOP finds itself much more wary of homophobia, and thus unable to effectively use Obama’s newfound support for gay marriage against him. The same party that has spent much of the year accusing the president of waging a “war on religion”— a phrase Romney used just last month—has realized that going after gay people is no longer politically useful.
This was made clear in a recent, much talked-about memo from Jan van Lohuizen, the pollster for Bush’s 2004 campaign. “Support for same-sex marriage has been growing and in the last few years support has grown at an accelerated rate with no sign of slowing down,” it said. It recommended that even Republicans who oppose gay marriage emphasize support for other sorts of familial rights for same-sex couples. Van Lohuizen suggested the following language: “People who disagree on the fundamental nature of marriage can agree, at the same time, that gays and lesbians should receive essential rights and protections such as hospital visitation, adoption rights, and health and death benefits.”
Romney can’t take that advice, though, because he still needs to placate the right. Hence his recent flip-flop on gay adoption. On Thursday, he told Fox News that he was “fine” with gay couples adopting children, saying, “[I]f two people of the same gender want to live together, want to have a loving relationship, or even to adopt a child…[i]n my view, that’s something that people have a right to do.” The next day, though, he claimed that he was merely referring to what the law allows, saying, “I simply acknowledge the fact that gay adoption is legal in all states but one.”
Of course, Romney’s been tripping up a lot on gay rights lately. This month, we’ve also seen the embarrassing departure of his gay spokesman, Richard Grenell, whose hiring infuriated some conservatives, as well as Romney’s awkward non-apology for allegedly bullying a gay kid in high school. It’s clear that he hasn’t figured out how to navigate the changing terrain of public opinion, terrain that’s becoming at least as tricky for opponents of gay rights as for supporters. No wonder he doesn’t want to talk about the subject, no matter how much his audience wants to hear about it.