(RNS) — For more than a decade, opposition to same-sex marriage was the Christian right’s rallying cry.
But last month, 47 House Republicans voted with Democrats to enshrine the right of LGBTQ couples to marry into federal law.
How could elected Republicans, including many who campaigned on traditional marriage for years, flip-flop so shamelessly on a bedrock social institution?
The answer, of course, is politics.
Same-sex marriage is not like abortion, where attitudes have been relatively stable for decades. More than 70% of Americans support same-sex marriage, including a bare majority of Republicans.
Now Republicans in Congress are being pressed on their views. Some traditionalists say it’s improper for Congress to consider this legislation. These are the same people who insisted loudly that social issues should not be decreed by unelected judges, but rather settled legislatively by the people’s representatives.
They are content for now for Republican-controlled states to criminalize abortion and will likely support a push for a federal abortion ban.
Another convenient lie Republicans are telling is that same-sex marriage is not in any danger. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio called the bill a “stupid waste of time.” Utah Sen. Mitt Romney called it “unnecessary.” Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse said that banning same-sex marriage is “hypothetical.”
But it seems especially dishonest to ignore Justice Thomas’ expressed wish for the Republican-dominated Supreme Court to revisit the 2015 case that made same-sex marriage legal.
Republicans who still believe that same-sex couples should be denied marriage are, in fact, hoping that unelected, unaccountable judges will take that right away so they don’t have to do something so unpopular.
As religious right leaders of the 1980s and 1990s learned, disappointment is foundational to their GOP alliance.
Aside from the fact that even within conservative and Republican circles, younger leaders are increasingly pro-LGBTQ, there is very little up-side to forcing Republicans in moderate areas to fall on their swords in a battle that cannot be won.
In Pennsylvania, GOP Senate nominee Mehmet Oz announced that he would support the Respect for Marriage Act. He cannot get elected in Pennsylvania without supporting marriage equality. But if elected, he could provide a pivotal vote for any future Supreme Court nominee who will eagerly strike down same-sex marriage.
The number of principled conservatives who believe in both traditional values and democratic norms is vanishingly small.
Their only path to sufficient power is to keep winning in the courts.
It seems odd, then, to see social conservatives who never utter a word against former President Trump’s attempt to overturn the last election pretend to have leverage over Republicans who might be tempted to support a policy position favored by a large majority of Americans. Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts threatened, “We will remember how you respond to this moment.”
At National Review, Andrew Walker and Carl Trueman wrote that craven Republicans “who are looking to ‘move on’ from supposedly divisive ‘social issues’ will deserve their comeuppance should they vote for this bill.”
It must be quite amusing for Trump and the institutional GOP, who watched once-principled social conservatives eat their words and forsake their principles over and over again, to now watch them rattle their sabers at purple-state Republicans. What are they going to do? Finance an anti-LGBTQ primary challenger who wants to criminalize abortion who will then lose the general election, thus giving Democrats more power?
If you are a socially conservative Republican for whom policy wins matter more than integrity, religion and democracy, you only have one choice: to shrug off Trumpist degradations, embrace clown-show candidates and be content winning through anti-majoritarian means like the Supreme Court.
The best social conservatives can hope for is that, if the Senate takes no action before it recesses for a month beginning Friday (Aug. 5), anti-same-sex-marriage advocates will bombard wavering Republicans with complaints that federally protected same-sex marriage will undermine religious liberty.
However, even conservatives attuned to conscience concerns cannot explain how the Respect for Marriage Act will change the religious liberty landscape in any substantive way.
Not every marriage is a happy one. But as Jesus himself said, “What God hath joined together, let no man separate.”
Even if same-sex marriage wins legislative protection, the marriage between conservative Christians and the Republican Party is not going anywhere.
(Jacob Lupfer is a writer and political strategist in Jacksonville, Florida. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)