Perhaps the most surprising moment in Donald Trump’s acceptance speech – and its only generous, humanizing moment – came when he went off-script to thank the Republican convention delegates for cheering his call to protect LGBTQ persons from terrorist violence. It was the first time LGBTQ people have been mentioned positively in a Republican acceptance speech.
Trump didn’t need to emphasize the fact that most victims of the Orlando mass shooting were LGBTQ, but he did. And the audience cheered, while millions of Americans watched. “As a Republican, it is so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said,” Trump ad libbed. The moment did not seem planned or contrived.
Earlier the same evening, another prime-time speaker declared himself “proud to be gay,” and questioned the religious right’s new obsession with transgender people and bathrooms.
Something was notably different about the televised proceedings of this year’s Republican convention: LGBTQ people were treated with dignity, while anti-LGBTQ messages were muzzled.
The convention thus highlighted an important political and social trend: the religious right’s decades-long culture war against LGBTQ people has finally lost its power and relevance, even with much of the Republican base.
The religious right’s leaders and issues have traditionally held a place of honor at Republican conventions. In 2004 – the year Republican leaders and religious activists worked hand-in-hand to engineer state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage – President George W. Bush freely insulted gay Americans, telling his convention that “[b]ecause the union of a man and woman deserves an honored place in our society, I support the protection of marriage against activist judges.” Just four years ago, Rick Santorum was given time at the podium to denounce the gay ”assault on marriage and the family.”
But such rhetoric no longer sells on the national stage.
The religious right is facing unsustainable declines in both its numbers and influence. Consider that Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who describe themselves as conservative and “highly religious” account for 34 percent of the party (the number goes up to 49 percent if you also include “moderately religious” conservatives), and Republicans and Republican leaners are about 42 percent of the country. So the religious right’s hard-core base is between 14 and 21 percent of Americans. Those numbers obviously are not a “moral majority.”
For a long time, the religious right wielded power greater than its share of the electorate because Republicans and some Democrats believed that most voters agreed with its positions on gay marriage and other LGBT issues. (Even Barack Obama thought it was necessary to “bullshit” that he opposed same-sex marriage in order to get elected in 2008.)
But no one believes any of that anymore. Gay marriage now enjoys solid and sustained majority support, and even support by Republicans continues to grow. In a survey this year, “morality and religion” ranked last among ten issue priorities for Republicans and Republican leaners. There are now more non-religious voters than evangelical voters in the United States. And the religious right increasingly finds itself in disarray. As a religion writer for The Atlantic observed back during primary season, “the conservative Christian voting bloc is a splintered remnant of the kingmaking machine it once was.”
To be sure, the 2016 Republican platform is more harshly anti-gay than ever, demanding reversal of the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision (which anyone who understands the Court knows will never happen) and endorsing anti-gay “conversion therapy.”
But this must be seen in context. Trump ceded the platform committee to extremists because he understands that statements in the platform have no practical consequences. Almost no one knows or cares what the platform says. A platform committee is just a sandbox where a party’s most committed ideologues can be allowed to feel important for a week.
By contrast, prime time is where a party presents the face seen by millions of people. And in prime time even this undisciplined, “shambolically mis-run” convention steered clear of anti-LGBT messaging.
Outside the spotlight, Tony Perkins, one of the religious right’s star bigots, could flaunt his satisfaction with the platform. But in the three minutes he was given to address the convention, Perkins served up only a dull, generic little sermon about keeping God in public life. Not a word about gays, marriage, or bathrooms. He never even used the phrase “religious liberty,” which has become code for “freedom to discriminate.”
The same was true for vice presidential nominee Mike Pence, who is best-known for his role in the anti-gay politics surrounding Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The same for Jerry Falwell Jr., one of Trump’s evangelical stooges. And the same for the buffoonish “benediction” by South Carolina preacher Mark Burns. Not a word from any of them about gays, “sanctity of marriage,” “religious liberty,” or bathrooms.
Even Ted Cruz stayed civil. The Texas senator – who during the primaries stood by while a deranged preacher called for gays to be put to death – made only a passing reference to “religious freedom,” telling the convention that “whether you’re gay or straight, the [Constitution’s] Bill of Rights protects the rights of all of us to live according to our conscience.”
I don’t want to overstate my argument or be misunderstood. Trump is a dangerous wanna-be authoritarian and a fraud. The idea that he would be better for LGBTQs than Hillary Clinton is absurd. He has shown no interest in advancing anti-discrimination laws. He claims to be against marriage equality. And the types of justices he says he would nominate to the Supreme Court would not have joined last year’s landmark marriage equality decision.
Moreover, the religious right retains strength in some state legislatures. It succeeded in pushing through anti-gay bills in a few places like North Carolina and Mississippi, overreaching and creating work for the federal courts that have been striking them down.
Sure, Trump has thrown a few bones to the religious right on issues he doesn’t know or care about, and people like Tony Perkins will continue trying to put the best face on their diminishing power and influence. But unlike some other commentators, I think what we saw in Cleveland is decisive evidence that the tide has finally turned in national politics against the religious right’s long anti-LGBTQ crusade. To borrow a phrase, the religious right is moving rapidly toward the day where it will confront the reality that “we don’t win anymore.”