One thing the recent election made very clear is the dramatic cultural shift that has taken place in America around the issue of gay rights and marriage. Views about homosexuality and gay rights have changed drastically over the past decade, of course, but over just the past few years, so has majority opinion about same-sex marriage. Recent major polls, for example, show a solid majority of 53 percent (according to a November 2012 Gallup poll) in favor, with 46 percent opposed. After eight years and over defeat for same-sex marriage rights at the ballot box in 30 states, three states finally adopted same-sex marriage through popular vote last November: Maryland, Maine, and Washington. And voters in Minnesota, home to anti-gay Congresswoman Michelle Bachman, decisively defeated a state constitutional amendment she campaigned for that would have outlawed same-sex marriage.
This shift in public opinion has been across the board, including Republicans and conservatives. Even though a majority of Republicans still oppose same-sex marriage, according to a recent poll, 30 percent of them now support marriage equality, and that number has grown substantially in recent years. According to a 2012 Fox News poll, almost 60 percent of Republicans support either same-sex marriage or civil unions, so the party’s rank and file are in fact very different from the rabidly anti-gay caricature imagined by both the left and the religious right base that seeks to set the party’s position on this issue.
Having lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections, the Republican Party is made up primarily of shrinking demographic groups like white men and religious right voters. Younger voters, particularly those 18 to 29, long ago abandoned the Republican Party, based partly on its relentless anti-gay message of the past two decades, and 60 percent of them voted for Barack Obama last November. Female voters and minorities are also now firmly in the Democrat camp. Independents, who were essential to the smashing Republican victory in 2010, are solid in their support of not just gay rights but also marriage equality. They will not long suffer Republican candidates determined to keep gays and lesbians as second class citizens when it comes to their legal rights and responsibilities. The choices facing the Republican Party on this and other volatile social issues could not be clearer, especially in light of the drubbing Republicans took last November.
The need to change course on gay rights is increasingly evident, and prominent Republicans and conservatives have been speaking out on this issue with increasing frequency, trying to make the case that marriage equality is not only consistent with conservative and Republican values but that it will also greatly strengthen the hand of Republicans in national and many state elections.
The latest to speak out on the need for change was former governor Jon Huntsman of Utah, just last week in the pages of The American Conservative magazine. While Governor Huntsman did not gain much traction as a candidate during the Republican presidential primary process, he had arguably the platform with the biggest appeal across the political spectrum, combining a very strong fiscal conservatism with a pro-life but also pro-gay rights (if not pro-gay marriage) message.
Other conservatives have pointed out the rapidly changing views of voters on same-sex marriage and argued that continuing the culture wars in the face of likely defeat is counter-productive. But Governor Huntsman went beyond the usual election-related reasons for change by issuing a moral challenge that goes to the heart of what modern conservatives believe. “All Americans should be treated equally by the law,” he wrote, “whether they marry in a church, another religious institution, or a town hall. This does not mean that any religious group would be forced by the state to recognize relationships that run counter to their conscience. Civil equality is compatible with, and indeed promotes, freedom of conscience.” That, at its core, is a fundamentally libertarian, live-and-let-live statement of how the law should work in the contentious world of personal and religious values and beliefs: let each citizen live his or her own life based on the values he or she believes in (whether religion-based or not), guaranteeing equal legal rights for all and granting special privileges to none, a belief that is sorely lacking in much of the social conservative movement, which too often sacrifices liberty on the altar of narrow religious belief.
Governor Huntsman also pointed out the deeply personal nature of marriage. Extolling his own marriage of 29 years, he said, “My marriage has been the greatest joy of my life. There is nothing conservative about denying other Americans the ability to forge that same relationship with the person they love…. Marriage is not an issue that people rationalize through the abstract lens of the law; rather, it is something understood emotionally through one’s own experience with family, neighbors, and friends. The party of Lincoln should stand with our best tradition of equality and support full civil marriage for all Americans.”
Fortunately, Governor Huntsman is not a voice in the wilderness on this issue. Like-minded conservatives have been speaking out with increasing frequency on this issue. Just last December, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who once vied for the title of being the most anti-gay-rights Republican presidential candidate in 2012, issued a stunning statement arguing that the tide has turned on same-sex marriage and that the Republican Party had better re-think its position on it. Referring to rapidly changing public opinion, he said, “It is in every family. It is in every community. The momentum is clearly now in the direction of finding some way to … accommodate and deal with reality. And the reality is going to be that in a number of American states—and it will be more after 2014—gay relationships will be legal, period.” He also made the critically important distinction between religious marriage in a church or other religious institution from civil marriage, the strictly legal part of marriage, which, he said, should be open to same-sex couples.
Other signs of change abound. Just last month, Dave Kochel, a veteran Iowa Republican activist and Governor Romney’s Iowa campaign senior adviser, came out for marriage equality, saying “The culture wars are kind of over and the Republicans largely lost.” A substantial percent of Iowans, in fact, now support same-sex marriage. Joining him was Illinois Republican Party chairman Pat Brady, who came out in support of the marriage equality bill making its way through the Illinois state legislature, drawing fire from some of his Republican colleagues as well as organizations like the National Organization for Marriage. The Illinois state treasurer, Republican Dan Rutherford, also supports the bill, which is likely to pass. If it does, it would make Illinois the tenth state to adopt same-sex marriage. If, in its current term, the Supreme Court upholds several lower court rulings overturning Proposition 8 in California, by June, nearly a third of American citizens will be living in states that recognize same-sex marriage, a development that was unthinkable just a few years ago.
Whatever private personal or religious views of homosexuality and marriage they might hold, conservatives who actually believe in the principles of limited government and individual liberty have no choice but to extend to gay and lesbian Americans the same constitutional and legal rights they expect for themselves. If they do so, they will open up the Republican Party to a whole new generation of potential supporters and voters, a development that won’t come a minute too soon.
David Lampo is the author of A Fundamental Freedom: Why Republicans, Conservatives, and Libertarians Should Support Gay Rights (Rowman & Littlefield).