If the Supreme Court decides that there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, will that signal the end of social conservatism?
First, why assume a loss at the Supreme Court will end the religious right’s reason for existence? Organized social conservatism was built from such defeats, including high court rulings against school prayer and legalizing abortion.
The school prayer decision will turn 53 in June. Roe v. Wade turned 42 in January. Neither of those issues is completely settled, as people still argue about them today.
Polls still show majorities of Americans more supportive of sanctioned religious practice in public schools than Earl Warren’s Supreme Court (and perhaps John Roberts’). The public remains split on abortion, with sporadic recent trends in the pro-life direction.
The Republican Party has not nominated an even mildly pro-choice candidate for president since 1976 and hasn’t chosen a presidential nominee who supported Roe v. Wade since the decision was handed down.
In fact, there remains significant public support for the teaching of creationism in public schools 90 years after the Scopes trial and two centuries after the birth of Charles Darwin. So let’s not overestimate the ability of the courts to resolve contentious social issues.
The public is trending in favor of gay marriage and that includes religiously observant people, albeit at a slower pace. But white evangelicals are still pretty opposed. Maybe lawsuits forcing them to bake cakes and make floral arrangements for ceremonies contrary to their faith will convince them; maybe such actions will transform the gay marriage debate to an argument over state recognition of same-sex unions to a fight over religious liberty.
Even if gay marriage does cease to be hotly debated, it’s not clear that means no religious right, much less no social conservatism. While Jerry Falwell was opposed to gay rights since the 1970s, his Moral Majority was dissolved almost five years before gay marriage first became a live political issue in 1993.
Ronald Reagan, the president who helped make the GOP the white evangelical’s party, had opposed a Falwell-backed California ballot initiative banning openly gay schoolteachers two years before he told a religious right rally, “I know you can’t endorse me… but I want you to know that I endorse you and what you are doing.”
Opposition to abortion and conservative views on religion in the public square may well be enough to keep an active Christian right going. It’s also clearly the case that decades of participation in the Republican Party have coincided with white evangelicals becoming more conservative across the board. Even if they can’t do anything about gay marriage in 2016, they will still be motivated by the marriage between Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Social conservatism is relative and not static. There was a time when people debated the role of women in the workplace. The end of that debate did not signal the end of social conservatism. In fact, the face of social conservatism as far back as the 1970s was Phyllis Schlafly, who — whatever her views on working women — was one. She’s in her 90s and still working today.
It’s hard to predict the politics of social issues. For a while in the 1990s, it looked like abortion was going to be an unambiguous liberal victory while gay rights was still polarizing. Conservatives like Charles Krauthammer were urging Republicans to wave the white flag in the “abortion wars” while polls showed only 27 percent support for gay marriage as late as 1996.
Now it looks like the opposite is the case. Abortion is as contested as ever while gay rights — including gay marriage — reflect a new social consensus. Part of this is because gay rights activists stopped doing things like protesting churches and started asking for socially conservative things, like joining marriage, the military and the Boy Scouts.
If a large enough group of people starts agitating for polygamy, that issue could replace gay marriage and some number of people who support gay marriage will oppose it. Here’s Jonathan Rauch, one of the leading proponents of the conservative case for gay marriage, arguing against polygamy, for instance.
Let that be a lesson to us all. No matter how progressive we fancy ourselves to be, if we live long enough, one day we will be reactionary troglodytes. No matter what the Supreme Court says.
W. James Antle III is managing editor of The Daily Caller and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.