Two weeks ago, the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute released results of a survey of over 40,000 Americans, which found that 61 percent support marriage equality, including majorities in 44 states.
Headlines were predictable, focusing on strong support for equality that has been gaining across the U.S., even among members of such conservative religious groups as Muslims and Mormons. The impression was clear: Marriage equality is, for all practical purposes, a done deal.
But the response was one of those moments that exemplified victory blindness, in which we focus on civil rights wins while oblivious to warning signs staring us right in the face.
Although a minority of Americans oppose marriage equality, they happen to be very passionate in their opposition, and they are concentrated in the Republican Party. Percy Bacon at FiveThirtyEight took the long view:
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision declaring same-sex marriage a constitutional right essentially ended the legal debate over this issue. And it has largely receded from electoral politics too. But I think it’s worth looking closely at the 39 percent of Americans who don’t support same-sex marriage, including the 30 percent who outright oppose it. That group really matters because it includes a majority bloc in the Republican Party, which dominates U.S. politics nationally and in many states.
While it’s true that marriage equality is gaining support among Republicans steadily, a bare majority, 51 percent, is still opposed, and conservative Republicans oppose marriage equality by 58 percent. The same percentage of Christian evangelicals oppose marriage equality. And evangelicals dominate the base of the GOP, and President Donald Trump has been bowing to them every chance he can on LGBT rights, from signing “religious liberty” orders that allow discrimination to banning transgender people from the military.
You might say 51 percent isn’t bad ― and is far better than it was a few years ago ― but the bigger problem has to do with tribalism and loyalty to the party. Many Republicans, after all, disapprove of Trump’s tweeting, for example, or support special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russia’s election interference and the Trump campaign. But that hasn’t stopped them from wholeheartedly supporting Trump in most polls by 80 percent or better.
Thus the question must be asked: Do Republicans who support marriage equality support it enough that it would be a deal breaker if a candidate was opposed to it, was undermining it, and was doing damage to LGBTQ rights? The answer clearly is no, because they supported and continue to support Trump. That should tell us how the issue will play in Senate, House and local races around the country this fall.
I looked at a lot of the polling in my 2015 book, It’s Not Over, including of millennial GOP voters. The polling then and now shows broad support for marriage equality among young people, including young Republicans ― well over 60 percent. But as I reported in the book, when I asked conservative young supporters of marriage equality about the issue at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, a politician’s stance against marriage equality didn’t sway their support of a GOP candidate, especially if they were passionate about other issues such as tax cuts and immigration. I got the same responses when I asked young people about this at the most recent CPAC as well.
“The greater threat in the short term than outright overturning Obergefell is the effort to turn same-sex marriage into second-class marriage.”
With this kind of indifference, anti-LGBTQ conservatives are having influence in state legislatures and in appointments of anti-LGBTQ judges to the courts. Harvard constitutional scholar Noah Feldman explained last year that Trump’s Supreme Court appointee, Justice Neil Gorsuch, in a key dissenting opinion sent a message to state courts that they should challenge the Obergefell marriage equality decision ― and Texas took him up on it.
But the greater threat in the short term than outright overturning Obergefell is what I’ve referred to as the effort to turn same-sex marriage into second-class marriage, via laws at the state level. The Supreme Court is about to rule on Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in which it will decide whether gay couples may be discriminated against by businesses providing wedding services ― or by any and all businesses ― and in oral arguments last year the conservative majority wasn’t reassuring.
The PRRI survey found that while 76 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of independents were opposed to allowing small business owners to refuse service to LGBTQ people based on the business owners’ religious beliefs, only 40 percent of Republicans were opposed.
We’ve also seen several states pass laws pushed by anti-LGBTQ religious conservatives allowing state-funded adoption agencies to bar gay couples from adopting ― again, based on the agency operators’ beliefs. Oklahoma was the latest state to do so, just last week.
These and other actions are the attempts to make gay marriage second-class marriage, and they have broad support among the most passionate activists in the Republican Party, while others in the party are indifferent and seem likely to just go along.
With Trump in the White House, Mike Pence as vice president and Republicans controlling Congress and the majority of statehouses and governorships, the preponderance of anti-LGBTQ views in the GOP is a serious danger to LGBTQ rights and marriage equality.
Trump is packing the federal courts with anti-LGBTQ judges who will have an impact on the lives of LGBTQ people for decades to come. And supposedly pro-LGBTQ GOP senators, such as Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, have given him to green light to do so.
Polls showing broad, growing support should be treated positively, for sure. But the passionate opposition to marriage equality and, more important, who the opponents are should keep us all very concerned about how quickly civil rights can unravel.
Follow Michelangelo Signorile on Twitter @msignorile.