This is what happens when conservatives lose a battle. They prepare for war.
You know that the end of lawful segregation didn’t end opposition to a more equal society. Anxiety at the loss of government-sanctioned racial superiority, upon which this nation had been built, first transmuted into support for a “law and order” agenda. And when Watergate took Nixon down, the right refused to reflect and moderate its stands. Instead, they exploited the most virulent opponents of equality — many of whom previously found a home in the Democratic party — to retrench and twist into movement we now know as the Religious Right.
In the “The Real Origins of the Religious Right,” Randal Balmer explains that event that sparked the sudden politicization of evangelicals — who generally supported Jimmy Carter in 1976 — wasn’t Roe v. Wade. It was the IRS’s revocation Bob Jones University of tax-exempt status for continuing discrimination against black students well into the 1970s. This encroachment on the “liberty” to discriminate was blamed on Carter, though it had been initiated by the Nixon Administration.
Recognizing that defending discrimination outwardly would agitate as many as it would inspire, the movement soon refocused on opposing abortion as a rallying call, launching a mass-market brand of Christian Libertarianism, my second favorite oxymoron of all time behind abstinence education, that now dominates the Republican Party.
Well-nurtured resentment wasn’t enough to change the course of American public policy. The merger of Ayn Rand and the church was funded by sudden flood of money into politics from corporate America, following the Powell Memo in 1971. With labor’s power suddenly overwhelmed by corporate lobbyists, Jimmy Carter’s election with big Democratic majorities in both Houses turned into liberal failure after failure. Health care reform, indexing of the the minimum wage, and new labor rights were all defeated as deregulation became the spirit of the day, planting the seeds for the slow-motion disaster of income inequality and ultimately the Bush financial crisis.
While effectively opposing integration, the intellectuals of the movement helped turn the public against Affirmative Action and any methods of repairing centuries of discrimination, by twisting the arguments for civil rights against themselves, just as former Confederates used the 14th amendment to destroy Reconstruction (as Ian Millhiser explains in his essential new book Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted).
The right’s lust to undermine the victories of civil rights reached its pinnacle in its now successful decades-long effort to gut the movement’s crown jewel— the Voting Rights Act.
Justice Elena Kagan hollowed out the right’s last, best argument against same-sex marriage on Tuesday by pointing out that religious officials won’t be compelled to perform ceremonies that violate their belief in the future, regardless of how the court rules. We know this because they aren’t now.
“…[T]here are many rabbis that will not conduct marriages between Jews and non-Jews, notwithstanding that we have a constitutional prohibition against religious discrimination,” Kagan said, in response to Antonin Scalia’s raising — or veritable retweeting — of this constant “concern” on the right. “And those rabbis get all the powers and privileges of the State, even if they have that rule, most — many, many, many rabbis won’t do that.”
The right knows they’ve lost the battle against marriage. Smarter conservatives are glad to see the issue go away for the 2016 election, knowing that it will only hurt them with young people in the most important election of our lifetime.
But we now have to be ready with the same sort of retrenchment we saw after segregation ended when it comes to LGBTQ rights.
Having lost the public opinion battle, conservatives moved on to a fight to preserve elements of discrimination by reframing the ability to deny service as “religious liberty.” This isn’t the first time religious liberty has been invoked to defend the right to deny others service, thus equality. And it has direct echoes of the right’s uproar over the integration:
Justice Alito: Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same-sex marriage?Solicitor General Verrilli: You know, I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. I don’t deny that.
Alito messes up the facts a bit here. Bob Jones was denied exemption because it literally didn’t admit black students into the school. But the broader point is probably applicable. A school that denied entrance to married same-sex couples could risk its exempt status. Similarly if it offered married housing to straight couples, it would need to offer the same to LGBTQ couples.
Conservatives use this point to argue that same-sex marriage could cost believers who believe they have the right to discriminate, which they do as long as they do not want a huge tax break. Really what they want is the kind of special rights they often accuse gay people of demanding.
There are all kinds of ways you can legally discriminate but if you offer something something to the public, you don’t get to decide what the public is.
A majority of all Americans, including 50 percent Republicans in a recent poll, agree that you should not be able to deny service based on sexual orientation. But this is a simple battle that feels too much like segregation to win popular support. The real battles will be waged over more visceral and Victorian issues like bathrooms, which are really smokescreens for denying trans people the right to fully participate in society.
Much of the lingering opposition to same-sex marriage can be mostly attributed to a genuine fear of change that many of us had to work through over the last decade.
But the best arguments for same-sex marriage have always been the arguments against it. The idea that same-sex marriage will somehow be corrosive to a society with a huge heterosexual divorce rate — by causing moral permissiveness that will lead to more children conceived out of wedlock — persuade few. The suggestion that more access to wedlock could lead to less wedlock requires a willing suspension of logic that is only justified by a fundamentalism that lays beyond reason.
But it’s impossible to overestimate the urge and need to retain or regain lost status.
That’s the conservative movement’s entire reason for existence. It’s how thye convince working people to vote against their own interests. And it’s how they’ll try to take a loss on same-sex marriage and turn it into more ways to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted.
[Image by David Goehring | Flickr]