A Losing Fight

02.11.15 10:45 AM ET

Kansas’s Big Gay Rollback a Sign of Conservative Desperation

Gov. Sam Brownback’s mean-spirited revocation of employment protection for LGBT people is but the latest Hail Mary from a Christian conservative camp that knows it has lost.

Well, it worked in Uganda.

Government in crisis? No money for basic infrastructure? Taking a cue from Russia, Uganda, and other beacons of democracy, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback found time in his schedule to wag the dog the old-fashioned way: by taking things out on gay people. In his case, that means allowing the state government to fire all its gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender employees for no reason other than being themselves.

Because that’ll help.

In a throwback to the “special rights” rhetoric of the 1990s, Brownback said he was opposed to his predecessor having created a “protected class of rights” by executive order. Which is odd, since the governor explicitly affirmed protected classes of rights for those who might be discriminated against on the basis of “race, color, gender, religion, national origin, ancestry, or age.” Of course, many of us might just call those “civil rights.”

What’s going on?

Brownback is pandering to his base here, of course, showing that he will fight against the tide of acceptance of LGBT people any which way he can. But his move will backfire with moderates. While national support for same-sex marriage is still hovering in the 55 percent range, support for employment protection is north of 70 percent. It’s just not the American way to fire someone because of who he or she is.

Set in context, Brownback’s is but one of many desperate moves among far-right conservatives who see that they have lost the moral battle on this issue—but not quite completely. That’ll take until June, when the Supreme Court is likely to bring marriage equality to all 50 states. In the meantime (paraphrasing Lars von Trier), chaos reigns.

Think of Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore’s pharisaic attempts to squirm out of gay marriage. Or similar shenanigans in Florida. Or the “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts” popping up like mushrooms all over the country.

These are mostly moves of desperation—tactics without a strategy. The fact is, Christian conservatives, once a fearsome lobby that called the shots in the White House, are now circling the drain on LGBT issues, even as they rack up victories on issues of reproductive justice. And they know it.

Their own base is eroding, with younger generations of Christians at best uninspired by anti-gay rhetoric. At worst, they are leaving: A recent study found that one-third of millennials who left their religious traditions did so because of those traditions’ teachings on homosexuality.

Beyond the base, LGBT issues have gone from reliable to radioactive. Witness House Speaker John Boehner’s statement that the House GOP will accept how the Supreme Court rules on gay marriage. (Contrast that with Obamacare.) Brownback’s brownnosing appeals to the far right, but it is anathema to the movable middle.

These legislative and judicial shifts are the consequences, not the causes, of social change. The Christian right has had it backward, trying to pass laws instead of win hearts and minds. 

To take but one recent example, did anyone even blink when Sam Smith ironically thanked his ex-boyfriend at the Grammys? Just three or four years ago, Adam Lambert was news. Now? Yawn.

This rapid social change has not gone unnoticed. Right-wing Christians have begun to play the victim card, saying that LGBT people have won and should take pity on their defeated foes. But really, the fault is their own. Having abandoned the traditional evangelical mistrust of politics, the Christian right now finds that the culture war actually mattered more.

Of course, being in the cultural minority suits many Christians just fine. Evangelical Christianity in particular has long been happier as a counterculture, railing against the mainstream and warning of Judgment Day. The outsider position—real or perceived—resonates with ancient tales of the Christian martyrs, and the anti-establishment teachings of Jesus himself. 

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And when you come to think of it, it’s always been five minutes to midnight in Christian America. Not a decade has gone by in all of American history in which conservative Christians haven’t warned that we’ve lost our moral compass. Emancipation, Prohibition’s repeal, the loss of the gold standard, urbanization, desegregation, evolution, secular education, women’s suffrage, women’s liberation, gay liberation—the conservative Christian narrative has always been one of moral decline. It has always been better in the good old days.

This is, then, both a unique moment in American moral history and a recurring one. On the one hand, the rapidity of the change regarding sexual and gender minorities has been stunning. On the other hand, moral evolution has always seemed shocking at the time, and always seems like the end of the world to those whose world is too small to accommodate it. 

At a certain point, desperation itself becomes a kind of virtue. There is a kind of valor in the doomed fight—think of Hollywood war movies, or the captain going down with his ship.

If you follow the evangelical movement as I do, however, you’ll also find a sincere sense of loss. When I began doing “opposition research” several years ago, I thought that Christian conservative claims of discrimination and victimhood were just rhetorical. Surely, these people couldn’t really believe they are being persecuted, when often what they’re fighting for is the right to continue persecuting others.

But I’ve come to see that the sense of loss is real, and not entirely off the mark. The world is changing, and Christian conservatives know it. Hail Marys such as Brownback’s reflect a real sense of having lost the moral battle, and not really knowing what to do.