When the Obama administration announced that it would adopt a matador defense
on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the reaction from conservative Christian activists alternated between rage and celebration that the president had basically allowed the political right a slam dunk for the 2012 campaign.
The Justice Department declared that it would no longer argue in court on behalf of a key restriction against gay marriage contained in the law, which effectively gives gay marriage a pass from the executive branch -- and gives the religious right a debating point.
But social conservatives may want to hold off on the high fives. Unlike abortion, gay marriage is not the automatic winner for the right that it was as recently as the 1990s when Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act
, which defines marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman.
Even among evangelicals and other conservatives, opposition is eroding, especially among a younger generation that doesn't see anything all that wrong with gay and lesbian couples.
Mike Huckabee, a possible 2012 presidential candidate who is far and away the front runner
among Republican voters when it comes to social issues and moral values, this week conceded that reality. The former Baptist pastor noted that younger evangelicals have shown an "alarming" trend toward acceptance
of homosexual relationships that could complicate political prospects for a candidate like himself who sees gay marriage as a moral threat on par with abortion.
The numbers certainly give Huckabee and his fellow opponents of gay marriage reason to worry.
Surveys in the last year show that for the first time more Americans are accepting than disapproving of "homosexual relations" (52-43 percent in a Gallup poll
). Both Gallup and Pew Forum surveys
last fall showed the gap is narrowing between those who disapprove of gay marriage itself and those who accept, suggesting acceptance will soon win out.
White evangelicals who form the core of the Republican right (and the tea party movement) remain the most opposed to gay marriage. However, even that opposition is easing, and it is significantly weaker among younger Christians, as Huckabee lamented. Not even a majority (just 48 percent
) of white evangelicals said they opposed gays serving openly in the military, in a poll taken just before Congress voted to repeal the "Don't ask, Don't tell" (DADT) law last December. Even most Republicans under age 45
said same-sex couples should have the same benefits as opposite-sex couples, according to an Associated Press-National Constitution Center poll last summer.
As authors Robert Putnam and David Campbell write in their sweeping new study of faith in the United States, "American Grace," given these trends "homosexuality will become less attractive as a wedge issue in politics and will likely cease to be a potent issue at all." If anything, homosexuality is becoming a dividing line within the Republican Party rather than between Republicans and Democrats, as shown by the boycott
of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference by some groups of social conservatives (and not others) over the presence of the conservative gay organization, GOProud.
These attitudinal shifts, along with the overriding concern about jobs and the economy, may help explain the decidedly low-key response this week from Republican leaders to Obama's DOMA decision.
Sarah Palin was quiet, and old bulls like Newt Gingrich largely confined their protests to the constitutionality of Obama's move rather than the impact on America's moral life. Tim Pawlenty said only that he was "disappointed," and a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner had an equally mild response: "While Americans want Washington to focus on creating jobs and cutting spending, the president will have to explain why he thinks now is the appropriate time to stir up a controversial issue that sharply divides the nation."
As Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist who worked for President George W. Bush during his 2004 campaign, told The New York Times
, "The wedge has lost its edge."
Indeed, marriage traditionalists like New York Times' columnist Ross Douthat has suggested gay marriage is no longer worth fighting
, and in the wake of the 2009 California court ruling overturning Proposition 8, a number of leading evangelicals
also said the battle wasn't justified.
There are several reasons why the Christian right is yielding this front in the culture war.
One is the disparity between what Christian conservatives preach about the sanctity of marriage and how some Christian conservatives and their leaders behave, as they seem to divorce and cheat at much the same rate as other Americans.
"In short, we have been perfect hypocrites on this issue," Christianity Today Editor Mark Galli
wrote in 2009. "Until we admit that, and take steps to amend our ways, our cries of alarm about gay marriage will echo off into oblivion."
Another factor may be related, paradoxically, to the success of the pro-life movement.
America's continuing unease with abortion -- in contrast with a growing comfort level about homosexuality -- means that conservative jeremiads against allowing gay couples to adopt babies who might otherwise have been orphaned or aborted just doesn't make sense, emotionally or morally, to many traditional Christians.
"I find myself convinced of the truth of the Church's teaching, but also without a good argument for why orphans are better off languishing without loving parents than they are being in a nurturing home with a same-sex couple," blogger Rod Dreher
A chief reason for the evolution among religious conservatives is one that is driving acceptance of gays among the wider public as well: familiarity.
Huckabee said this week that the change is "not surprising because every movie, every television show, every novel that many young people are exposed to is an affirmation of the rightness of gay marriage and the idiocy, if not the antiquity, of views of people like me who think some social institutions matter for a reason."
But homosexuals are emerging not just in popular culture but in the conservative world, too.
In the 2004 presidential race, gay marriage ballot measures in a dozen states (for and against) helped rally conservative voters. The head of George W. Bush's campaign at that time -- and subsequently GOP chairman -- was Ken Mehlman, who last August came out publicly
as gay. A few months before that, Bush's wife, Laura, wrote in her memoir
that she supports the right of gays to marry, and Cindy McCain, wife of 2008 presidential runner-up and gay marriage opponent Sen. John McCain, last year posed for an ad campaign
in support of gay rights.
In April 2010, Christian music star Jennifer Knapp
returned to performing after a seven-year absence, and announced that she had been in an eight-year relationship with another woman -- and was still a Christian. Gospel star Tonex came out as gay in 2009 as did Christian singer/songwriter Ray Boltz in 2008.
After this week's DOMA decision, some Republicans and their allies are making noises
about passing a resolution in the House to fill the legal void left by the Obama administration's defection.
But when popular Christian singers and well-known Republicans are out of the closet or supporting their gay friends, it begins to look as though Obama has handed the GOP the one issue it doesn't need.