Politics

03.30.13

The Coming GOP-Evangelical Divorce

It may take a couple of election cycles, says Michael Tomasky, but Republican moderation on social issues is inevitable—and many evangelicals will respond by withdrawing from politics.

What are evangelical conservatives going to do? I ask the question not with any sympathy, but with a mountain of schadenfreudian glee—I am profoundly reassured about my country’s direction every time I hear Tony Perkins bemoan it. But however it’s asked, it’s a question that’s growing more and more urgent. Mike Huckabee says that if the GOP embraces same-sex marriage, “evangelicals will take a walk.” Others pooh-pooh this on the usual grounds that they’ve got nowhere else to go. But they do: back to private life. And it’s my bet that in, say, eight or 12 years’ time, that’s where a lot of evangelicals will be. Having gotten into politics to rescue America from the sinners and fornicators, I reckon a critical mass will decide by 2024 that it was fun while it lasted, but that the fight is hopeless.

It’s going to be fascinating to watch and see what the party does on same-sex marriage as these next months and years progress. I, for one, do not expect to see the senators tumble like dominoes after the push from Ohio’s Rob Portman. Too many of them are from states where adopting that position would be suicide. Remember, we’re talking here not about the mores of the state as a whole, but of its GOP primary voters. So Claire McCaskill could announce her support for same-sex marriage in Democratic Missouri. But Roy Blunt in Republican Missouri? One doubts it. Different state, really. He in fact just reaffirmed his support for the Defense of Marriage Act.

Perusing the list of GOP senators, one sees only a few who might follow Portman. Susan Collins of course; Mark Kirk; Kelly Ayotte, at least on geographic grounds, although she’s quite conservative. You get the idea. I haven’t studied the political situations of all 232 GOP House members, and I won’t, but the general picture is similar. Right now, a grand total of two GOP House members back gay marriage—Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and Richard Hanna of upstate New York. Two.

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Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, March 21, 2013. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

This is all pretty amusing because after Portman, some people started talking and writing as if some sort of floodgates were opening, but in reality it would be completely shocking if more than 20 of Capitol Hill’s 279 Republican solons were backing same-sex marriage as we approach 2016. There may well not be more than 10.

This is the kind of issue on which the party’s position will largely be determined by the person it nominates to be president. All the contenders are reliably anti-, yes, even Rand Paul. His libertarian disposition brings him up short of the usual epileptic hatred of gay people, but he’s against them all the same. So the party will likely head into the 2016 election with a position identical to the one it has now. The hard-shell platform, which in 2012 backed a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and woman, may get a nip here or tuck there, which those sad Log Cabin people will tout as a great advance, but no more than that.

How much patience can a movement have? By 2024, evangelicals will have been up to their armpits in politics for half a century. With what to show for it?

And, by 2016, it will be more clear than it is today that their bigoted position is a big electoral loser for them. They likely will have lost again, assuming Hillary Clinton runs. And then, staring at the grim reality of 16 straight years of Democratic governance by two people they believe to be Satan and, uh, Satan, they’ll start to make some changes. They’ll study up on the actuarial charts, and same-sex marriage is one of the changes they’ll make—maybe not whole hog right at first, but eventually and inevitably. By 2024—after Hillary, that is—the Republicans will be not all that distinguishable (at least through evangelical eyes) from the Democrats, with a platform supporting same-sex marriage, or at least tolerating it in antiseptic language.

Then what for the Christian right? They got into politics in the 1970s. Remember, Jerry Falwell himself, in a 1965 sermon called “Ministers and Marches,” denounced mixing religion and politics. But then came late-’60s tumult, Roe v. Wade, and kindred signs of the devil’s grip (preceded by the Supreme Court’s decision to take God out of the classroom). Religious conservatives got into politics to undo those things. And here we are, 50 years later, and it’s only gotten worse as far as they’re concerned. By 2024, if my forecasts are correct, things will get only worse still.

Well, how much patience can a movement have? By 2024, evangelicals will have been up to their armpits in politics for half a century. With what to show for it? A country where (I’m betting) abortion is still legal, and now Adam and Steve are saying vows. And their vehicle for their agenda, the Republican Party, will be walking away from them to a place where they smell more votes (and money).

And that’s how the GOP-evangelical divorce will happen. Not all evangelicals will leave. Maybe not even half. But a reduction in the Republican primary electorate from 50 percent evangelical, which is roughly what it is now, to 30 percent would make for some enormous improvements in how the party approaches social issues. And many evangelicals, heeding that old Falwell advice, will stop obsessing so much over this life and spend more time preparing for what they believe is the next one, where (if their own predictions are correct) they won’t feel like hating anyone anymore anyway.