Is the Religious Right Finished?

This week was a bad week for right-wingers. The Supreme Court (I hate the acronym “SCOTUS.” Sounds like a disreputable body part.) upheld the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) against a challenge that would have removed the federal subsidy for health insurance purchase in non-participating (red) states. Then, just yesterday, came an even crueler blow when the Court struck down state bans on gay marriage. State officials here in Texas were apoplectic or lachrymose, vowing no surrender. Speaking of Glorious Lost Causes, neo-Confederates got a kick to the dentures when rebel flags started to come down across the south. Even the Republican governors of Alabama and South Carolina said that the Confederate Battle Flag is a symbol of racism and hatred and has no place on public property. The choruses of wailing, moaning, and gnashing of teeth wafting from the right were music to my liberal ears.

The ruling striking down gay marriage bans comes on the tail of a remarkable turnaround in public opinion. As recently as 2004, George W. Bush could run successfully on a campaign of “fears, smears, and queers,” that is, by playing up fear of terrorism, smearing John Kerry with the “swift boat” stuff, and decrying the “gay agenda.” Ten years ago a strong majority disapproved of gay marriage, and this has turned into strong approval. Does this ruling and the groundswell of public approval mean that the religious right has shot its bolt? Is it finished? After all, opposition to gay marriage is a big-ticket item for them, one of their key and defining issues. Braving charges of homophobia, they cast down the gauntlet and drew lines in the sand. Will the Court’s ruling impact them like the Scopes trial did in the 1920s? Will they now be castigated and humiliated in the media, held up as archetypical bigots and obscurantists, lampooned by every wag and wit with a microphone? Will they skulk off for a few decades at least, to lick their wounds and await a new day?

I think that any news of the demise of the religious right is grossly exaggerated. They have gotten a lot smarter since the 1920s. If beaten in open battle, they resort to guerilla attacks. Take abortion, which is as big or bigger issue for the religious right than gay rights. When Roe v. Wade recognized abortion as a constitutional right, it could no longer be attacked head-on. When you enter public office in Texas you have to swear to uphold the law and the Constitution. What they have done, then, is to try to make abortion die the death of a thousand small cuts. Bit, by bit, they chip away at it, with rules that make it more onerous, humiliating, or intimidating for women seeking abortions and harder for abortion clinics to stay open. For instance, anyone seeking abortion is required to get an ultrasound in hopes that image of the “baby” will shame her into backing off. Abortion clinics are required to meet unnecessarily strict standards, and abortion doctors must have admitting privileges at a local hospital. The net result is that clinics get closed, leaving only a few in the state. Since these measures cannot be defended as attempts to deny to women a constitutional right, they are risibly justified as “empowering” women or promoting their safety.

So, I think that the religious right will not surrender or even retreat. They will just start launching sneaky attacks on gay marriage, just like they do on abortion. One trick that the religious right has learned is to defend their agenda with the rhetoric of progressives. Thus, as noted above, laws designed to prevent women’s choices are defended as “empowering.” Likewise, instead of attacking gays directly, the new rhetoric will support “religious liberty.” State legislatures, as I am sure we will see in Texas, will offer a plethora of bills ostensibly to defend the freedom of religion but really intended to defend the freedom to discriminate. The argument will be that some people (conservative Christians) regard gay marriage as sinful on the basis of sincere and deeply held religious convictions, and therefore it would be an infringement of their religious freedom to require that they so act as to promote or sanction actions they regard as sinful. Really, it is amazing how creative fundamentalist legislators can be at coming up with underhanded ways to undermine federal rulings.

So, while we might pop a cork to celebrate the ruling, now is not the time for complacency about the religious right. On the contrary, we have to become a lot more vigilant in sniffing out their schemes and machinations. When they go behind the scenes, we have to drag them out into the daylight and expose the sleazy rhetoric they use to cloak bigotry in the language of progress. We have to be emphatic that freedom of religion does not include the freedom to make people into second class citizens because they are LGBT (actually, transgender will be the next big battleground).

Actually, the thing that might hurt the religious right the most is that the movement is graying. According to the polls I have seen, young people are moving farther away from the social conservative agenda, so demographics might do the job that the Supreme Court cannot. Gen X and the Millennials have grown up with more positive models of gay people in the media and with openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual friends and relatives. They have a hard time seeing that these people are deserving of hell because of whom they love. Will Southern Baptists have openly gay ministers in fifty years? Not impossible, I would say.