Hell in a Handbasket

Sympathy for the Devils: Scenes From the Social Conservative Collapse

There was a time when the bigoted, Bible-thumping crowd ran roughshod over D.C. Now, not so much.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

On Friday afternoon, the day after winning the election to become the new House Majority Leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA)—tan, grey-haired and neatly dressed—took to the stage at Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition ‘Road to Majority’ Conference to thank “my Lord and Savior for his grace, his strength, and for never leaving me.”

The crowd ate it up—well, what was left of the crowd, anyway.

The Regency Ballroom inside the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington was barely half-filled by the time McCarthy took the stage around 1:15pm, after a string of speeches by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, former presidential candidate Herman Cain, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, which touched on a range of topics—from the president’s foreign policy, to education, to prison reform, and, of course, abortion.

The crowd seemed to have dispersed after Christie’s well-received speech, which saw him again use a variation of one of his Greatest Hits: “if you’re pro-life, you have to be pro-life when they leave the womb, too.” A few minutes after Christie finished up, it looked like there had been a fire drill in the ballroom.

The tables where the event’s sponsors offered pamphlets urging people to “draft Ben Carson” or “investigate Planned Parenthood’s plan” were mostly left unvisited—with vendors practically throwing literature, bumper stickers, and pins at passersby.

Herman Cain walked out on stage wearing a gold, slightly metallic tie. Cain offered Obamacare “sucks,” “Tea Party is an attitude!” and “a first grader would solve problems a lot smarter than this administration. I’m not saying that to be insulting.”

Cain did receive a standing ovation, but there were so few people left in attendance that it looked more like they were idly waiting for a bus.

But even when the room was filled, something was just lacking. The event brought none of the electricity of the Conservative Political Action Conference, Washington’s premier right-of-center confab. But, perhaps that’s not much of a surprise at all, considering that unlike CPAC—which markets itself to conservatives of all different varieties—the Faith and Freedom Coalition markets itself only to extreme social conservatives.

A similar vibe surrounded Thursday’s social conservative event, the March for Marriage, meant to celebrate unions between men and women only. Not only was it sparsely attended (compared to the expected turnout of tens of thousands); it was also just sort of sad. The general mood in the crowd seemed less excited about the future of the movement than it did confused, angry, and hateful about what they were fighting. As J. Bryan Lowder at Slate described it: four of the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, and depression—were on full display today at the March for Marriage…” Attendees screamed at bystanders, and offered up bad science about gay sex—all in all, the event was not exactly welcoming to prospective members of the ‘traditional marriage’ movement.

Maybe Republican celebrities addressing half-empty ballrooms and a thin crowd of angry protesters scaring off observers is it looks like when you’re losing the battles and you’re losing the war.

Same sex marriage is legal in 19 states and in the District of Columbia. This year, states like Pennsylvania and Oregon have seen judges throw out their bans.

And public opinion polls are even worse for ‘traditional marriage’ supporters. According to Pew Research Polling, in “just five years, the percentage of adults who say they oppose same-sex marriage has fallen from a majority (54%) to a minority. Today, roughly four-in-ten Americans (39%) say they oppose allowing gay and lesbian couples to wed.”

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This has made some social conservatives rather, um, dyspeptic. A few readers of my report on Thursday’s March for Marriage seemed to think that I was being unfair to attendees. One lovely, presumably God-loving, reader emailed me to say, “I tried to think of the right word to describe you. The ‘C’ word came to mind. Yes, I believe you to fit the definition of a cunt.” (To which the obvious retort was: the Christ-like thing to do would be to forgive me).

But the reason why my report made it seem like every person I encountered at the March for Marriage was hateful, uninformed, and just generally very, very, sad, is because that was who attended the event. Organizers of the march say that it is a march for traditional marriage, not against same-sex marriage—and that very well could have been the intention. However, it seems that the only people interested in exerting energy to support such a cause are the very people who will walk up to you and, before asking your name or where you’re from, tell you that anal and oral sex reduce the lifespans of gay men by 25 years. (Yes, that really happened.)

With well-reasoned arguments like that, perhaps it’s no surprise that social conservatives are struggling.