It's not over. True, Indiana and Arkansas have backed down from "religious freedom'' laws that legitimize anti-gay discrimination. And the U.S. Supreme Court may rule this year that same-sex marriages are legal in the entire country.
But even then it won't be over. One sentence in the 2012 Republican Party platform is likely to stir up the controversy all over again: "We reaffirm our support for a Constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman.'' That Constitutional amendment would nullify any Supreme Court decision.
A lot of Republicans want to get rid of that provision in order to bring their party into the 21st century. Nearly forty percent of Republicans support same-sex marriage, including over sixty percent of Republicans under 30. ``Any political candidate who is perceived as anti-gay at the presidential level will never connect with people under 30 years old,'' a Republican pollster warned last month.
On the other hand, the religious right is threatening to walk out of the convention if that plank is removed. Evangelicals are talking about mobilizing "an army'' to keep the Republican party from backsliding. All of the potential Republican candidates for President next year oppose same-sex marriage, and they all endorsed the Indiana "religious freedom'' law. When the Indiana legislature modified the law under pressure, Jeb Bush quickly embraced the compromise. He was for the Indiana law before he was against it.
The big surprise was that the backlash to the law came as a big surprise to Republicans. "Was I expecting this kind of backlash? Heavens no,'' Gov. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) said after a boycott Indiana movement sprang up across the country. "This is a bill that in ordinary times would not be controversial,'' Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) said. "But these are not ordinary times.'' For many Republicans, "ordinary times'' means gays in the closet and same-sex marriage unimaginable.
What happened was really a backlash to a backlash. The religious freedom laws proposed in more than a dozen states this year were a backlash to the growing acceptance and legalization of same-sex marriage. The laws were supposed to be a consolation prize to conservatives: same-sex marriages may be legal, but you can still refuse to grant them equality.
Republicans claim they backed down in Indiana and Arkansas because of a "perception problem.'' The religious freedom laws were "damaging the Republican brand'' and "hurting the image'' of their states. That misses the real message: in the New America, it is no longer acceptable to stigmatize gay people.
Or African-Americans or Latinos or Asian-Americans or Jews or Muslims or working women or single mothers or the unchurched (the nearly one in five Americans who have no religious affiliation). Those groups, along with millennials and educated professionals, comprise the New America coalition that came to power with President Obama. All of them (except African-Americans and Jews) represent growing shares of the U.S. population.
What holds the coalition together is a belief in diversity and inclusion. The Democratic Party, which used to be deeply divided by social and cultural issues, is amazingly unified today. It's Republicans who are facing internal dissent. And who are being thrown on the defensive on issues like gay rights, women's rights, civil rights, immigration and climate change.
Republicans represent the Old America. The Old America may be losing influence but it's not giving up without a fight. The issue it's rallying around? Religion. Today, the best poll question you can ask to find out how an American votes is "How often do you go to church?'' Regular churchgoers vote Republican. Non-churchgoers vote Democratic.
The United States remains the most religious advanced industrial country in the world. That's because many of the groups that immigrated to this country came seeking religious freedom. So the most religious people came here. Religion usually puts Democrats on the defensive because they don't want to be seen as the godless party.
But Democrats have learned they can fight back by rallying around diversity and inclusion. It works, as we just saw in Indiana. Republicans were shocked -- shocked! -- to discover that gay issues have become just a big a political minefield as race.