The GOP vs Social Conservatism

New York City Clerks Offices Open Sunday For First Day Of Gay Marriages

Tim Noah recognizes that “one of the ironies of the marriage equality movement is the conservative movement’s stubborn refusal to recognize its fundamentally conservative nature”:

John Geddes Lawrence and Tyron Garner [of Lawrence v. Texas] were not conservatives’ type of people. One was demonstrably irresponsible, the other was a rootless drifter, and their case was about a sexual act (albeit one never actually committed) that most conservatives really don’t like to think about. Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer [of U.S. v. Windsor], on the other hand, are precisely conservatives’ type of people (except for their sexual orientation and maybe their politics). They are (in Spyer’s case, were) affluent and mutually committed and responsible members of society. Their case is about not being bullied by the IRS into paying too much in taxes, which is something conservatives fret about all the time.

When the history books are written, one likely conclusion will be that the swift ascendancy of gay rights in the second decade of the 21st century was largely attributable to gay people’s relentless pursuit of a boring lifestyle.

And this has definitely affected my views about American conservatism. There is a conservative position against marriage equality, which is simply resistance to any drastic change in such a crucial institution. But thanks to federalism, we can now see that fears of unintended consequences have not materialized so far in any of the equality states, and that marriage as a whole is in a much worse state where heterosexuals-only marriage endures. What you would expect an actual socially conservative party to do would be to adapt to these new realities, after legitimate initial skepticism, and try to coopt an emerging social group by integrating them into society in a conservative way.

Imagine, say, a pro-marriage movement among African-Americans. Do you think the GOP would oppose it ferociously? Imagine any group’s desire to leave behind leftist balkanization and cultural revolt in order to embrace the values of family, stability and responsibility. On what grounds would the GOP oppose it? None. So why the resilient hostility to gay conservatives and their remarkable triumph in a traditionally leftist sub-population? In fact, it is precisely those gay conservatives who are barred from Fox News – or immediately hazed by homophobes like Erick Erickson.

In Britain, you can see a direct analogy. The Tories went from hostility to homosexual equality in the 1980s to an embrace of it as a conservative cause in the 21st Century. To cite David Cameron’s speech to his own party conference:

I don’t support gay marriage in spite of being a conservative, I support gay marriage because I am a conservative.

Canada’s and New Zealand’s Conservative parties have also backed the reform. And many Republicans have supported it now as well. So why the remaining resilience?

The only real explanation is religious fundamentalism.

The GOP, at its core, is a religious organization, not a political one. It is digging in deeper on immigration reform, and marriage equality, and abortion. It is not acting as a rational actor in political competition but as a fundamentalist movement, gerrymandering its way to total resistance to modernity’s increasing diversity of views and beliefs. It is emphatically not a socially conservative force: it is a radical, fundamentalist movement, incapable of accepting any political settlement that does not comport with unchanging, eternal dicta.

It is the great tragedy of the era that Republicans targeted one of the few grass-roots, genuinely conservative movements as their implacable enemy in the last quarter century. They went after the one group truly trying to shore up and support marriage – and they even wanted to amend the Constitution to do so. They did so, I believe, for one reason alone: fundamentalism. And that is not conservatism. In so many ways, it is conservatism’s eternal nemesis: the refusal to adjust to the times in favor of an ideology that never changes.

(Photo: Same-sex couple Joseph and Jim pose for a photo as they wait to be officially married at the Manhattan City Clerk’s Office on the first day New York State’s Marriage Equality Act went into effect July 24, 2011 in New York City. By Anthony Behar-Pool/Getty Images.)