The president’s support for LGBT rights, especially the oblique reference to marriage equality in his inaugural address got me thinking about the last time his “evolution” on the issue of LGBT rights got him talking about same sex marriage. On that other historic occasion, the right reacted as it always has, trying to draw a line around civil rights that excludes LGBT people.
RNC chair Reince Priebus summed things up for the opposition saying,
“I don’t think it’s a matter of civil rights. I think it’s just a matter of whether or not we’re going to adhere to something that’s been historical and religious and legal in this country for many, many years…I mean, marriage has to have a definition, and we just happen to believe it’s between a man and woman.”
Of course, Priebus is right that marriage has to have a definition. But, “historical and religious and legal” are not sufficient tests of Constitutionality, much less fairness. After all, Jim Crow was once legal and, for many, a matter of religious conviction, and there’s no question it is a big part of our history. In fact, the legacy of inequity we have inherited from this history continues to plague us today.
But Priebus had a response to that as well, saying,
“I think there’s a big difference between people that have been murdered and everything else that has come with Jim Crow, than marriage between a man and man and a woman and a woman…”
I know we’ve heard this stuff way too many times in the past, but we ought to take these words seriously because they’re so often repeated for a reason. They work, at least for some if not all people. And, lest we forget, the GOP is one of the most powerful institutions in our country, controlling the majority of state legislatures and our House of Representatives. “Some if not all people” in this case is the ruling majority in many states.
The strategy is to lean on tradition, suggesting that we are a nation based on Christian values and that real Christians (or at least enough of them) oppose same sex unions and ought not be forced to endorse them. Then, they raise the specter of the slippery slope, with the extension of rights to some leading to rights for all, causing a dilution of our rights to the point of meaninglessness. You know, like that if we license same sex marriages we’ll soon be licensing marriages between people and dogs. And finally, they trivialize those who seek civil rights protection by contrasting contemporary rights movements with the Black civil rights struggle.
This messaging strategy has been used to drum up opposition to gun control, reproductive rights, affirmative action, and voting rights. It’s also ridiculous, not to mention dangerous. We don’t live in a Christian theocracy. We honor Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and atheist marriages. And, rights for all is the principle upon which the Constitution, at least within the limited definition of “all” of the framers, was founded. When we extend protections to more and more people, we make that definition truly inclusive and democratic, and strengthen civil rights for everyone.
This right wing messaging strategy was crafted in the 60s, at a time when evangelical (born again) Christianity was the fastest growing movement in the U.S. The right wing was then (as now) at war with themselves. They acted on the opportunity presented by the born again movement to resurrect themselves as a movement of ethics and religion, and not just of white power, dollars and cents. They appealed to this base by waging a cultural war against LGBT people, socialists (which they equate with labor unions), feminists, Black power, and hippies, and it worked.
This victory did not come without a price. That price was summed up hilariously by Alec Baldwin who tweeted of the right wing takeover of the GOP, “You know your party is in trouble when people ask did the rape guy win, and you have to ask which one?” However, religious activists offset this price by playing key roles in victories against unions, immigration rights, feminism, affirmative action, desegregation, public schools, and entitlement programs. And while the cultural war pushed liberals to the left on social issues, it successfully cornered us there, allowing conservatives to win on key economic issues, including deregulation of the finance sector, and moving free trade agreements like NAFTA, among other things.
By attacking controversial constituencies that the liberal establishment was often loathe to defend, the right was able to divide and conquer, making their right wing evangelical plurality among the most influential voting blocs in the country. All of us who are concerned about civil rights must understand the significance of this strategy. That’s why the struggle for marriage equality is important to everyone concerned with issues of equity. As long as some are excluded, all are at risk.