The war is over. Or at least it is nearing its end.
In November 2012, same-sex marriage was legalized at the ballot box in Maryland, Maine, and Washington, while Minnesota defeated a constitutional ban. Since then, bills legalizing same-sex marriage have been passed in Rhode Island and Delaware. Courts in deeply conservative states like Utah, Oklahoma, Texas, and Kentucky have ruled that marriage bans violate the Constitution. Nearly every Democratic officeholder in the land supports same-sex marriage, and each day seems to bring another Republican over.
Savvy conservatives and evangelicals are acknowledging, often privately, that public opinion is not in their favor. And they fear what will happen in the future to those who fought against the rising tide of public opinion.
“We have people who are losing their jobs, being smeared publicly because they hold the view that marriage is a union between one man and one woman,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, an evangelical think tank and lobbying organization. “They are called bigots. Homophobes. That is not the way we operate in a free society.”
Perkins was speaking to The Daily Beast in the lobby of a New Orleans hotel in between sessions of the Republican Leadership Conference, a semi-annual gathering of conservatives from around the country. At an address to the delegates earlier in the day, Perkins railed against what he called “The New McCarthyism,” which “would force every corporate leader, university official, public contractor, or media figure to answer a question: ‘Are you now or have you ever been involved in an effort to preserve marriage as the union of a man and a woman?’”
“No, I’ll go further than that,” Perkins continued. “This New McCarthyism demands, ‘Do you now think or have you ever thought that marriage should remain the union of a man and a woman?’ Answer incorrectly, and watch your career be taken from you and your reputation smeared on a thousand websites.”
Many of these fears burst out into the open earlier this year when Brendan Eich, the CEO of Mozilla, was run out of his position after it was revealed that he had donated money to the anti-gay marriage cause in California. Although some supporters of gay rights even thought the Eich affair was handled poorly, it sent a signal “that you have to be politically correct if you want to attain a higher position,” said Warner Todd Huston, a conservative activist and writer.
“That is the fear, that traditional American values are being criminalized as opposed to simply being out of fashion,” he said.
For gay rights activists, such concerns appear overblown and can be used to stoke paranoia on the right.
“This is a tactic. We have to call this out,” said Alvin McEwan, author of How They See Us: Unmasking the Religious Right War on Gay America and a blogger at Holy Bullies and Headless Monsters, a site, he says, that is dedicated to showing “how religious-right groups distort legitimate research and rely on junk studies to stigmatize the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities.” The Eich case, McEwan said, was not proof of a witch hunt but proof that the American free enterprise system that conservatives extol was working properly.
“People have a right to boycott a business if they don’t like you,” he said.
And even though McEwan said he does not think that gay-marriage opponents should be cast out of public life, conservatives, he added, have been warning the citizenry about “the gay agenda” for years.
“They have this entitlement thing,” he said. “They have a right to believe what they want to believe, but they have to share the country.”
“This notion that our position is one that doesn’t belong in the public square is something we should all be worried about.”
Same-sex marriage is, of course, not the first issue to divide Americans. Slavery, segregation, and abortion led to civil war, vigilante violence, and massive protest movements.
But opponents of same-sex marriage say that even in those instances there was détente after passions cooled. One-time segregationists remained in the upper echelons of American public life through the 1990s. This time, opponents of same-sex marriage fear that supporters will not be happy until their side has been run out of polite society and forced to retract their previously held views.
“Even supporters of abortion don’t go around saying that people who believe that life begins at conception are evil people,” said Brian Brown, president of the National Organization of Marriage. “But this is not the case here, and the problem is that the establishment gay marriage groups have not condemned this view that those of us who favor traditional marriage are bigots and therefore should be abolished.”
Brown’s group has fought to keep the names of its donors secret for just that reason. He has been threatened and targeted, he said, and pointed to an incident last year in which a gunman attempted to shoot up the headquarters of the Family Research Council while holding a bag of food from Chik-fil-A, the conservative Christian company that was a target of boycotts over its owner’s anti-gay views. Brown noted that according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the FRC is a “hate group, in the same category as the KKK.”
Another difference between earlier American civil rights conflicts and this one, he said, was that slavery, or discriminating against someone on the basis of race, was considered immoral around the world for centuries while the practice was ongoing in parts of the U.S. Hardly anyone in politics, on the other hand, was pushing for gay marriage “until about 10 years ago, but the people who don’t totally want to redefine a definition of marriage that has lasted for thousands of years need to be shunned.”
Opponents of same-sex marriage say that even liberals have started to feel the effects of the witch hunt. While to many listeners Hillary Clinton’s interview with Terry Gross last week was an example of a politician fumbling through a response to a question about her evolution on gay marriage, to conservatives it was proof that everyone who once held a different view must now apologize and be publicly flogged for it.
Ryan T. Anderson, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation who has argued against legalizing same-sex marriage, said he does not think opponents will be treated the same way those who opposed, say, interracial marriage are now. And he cited an example that proponents of gay rights often use to describe the evolution of greater acceptance of their ideas.
Even proponents of same-sex marriage, Anderson said, “may have family members who are against gay marriage. It is hard to believe that my mom or my great-uncle or someone is a bigot.”
Yet Anderson himself was involved in an incident that anti-gay marriage activists point to as an example of the increasing threat they are under. After he was booked to speak at Stanford earlier this year, an uproar ensued and gay student groups demanded that the organization that invited Anderson be stripped of its funding to put on the event.
Anderson said he had spoken at the university without incident the previous year, and he attributed the change in tone to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s ruling in the Supreme Court’s gay marriage case, in which he wrote that the purpose of bans was to “disparage and injure” gay couples.
“He was essentially saying that opposing viewpoints don’t have a right to be heard,” Anderson said.
In the meantime, as this particular culture war fades out, it is unclear when the soldiers will be free to leave their trenches, and conservatives know who to blame.
“The pro-gay marriage people need to accept that even though we disagree, we are not hateful,” said Brown. “This notion that our position is one that doesn’t belong in the public square is something we should all be worried about.”