In the 2004 election cycle, President George W. Bush was re-elected in no small part due to the issue of same-sex marriage. In 11 different states that year, there were ballot questions regarding definition of marriage remaining a union between one man and one woman. All 11 states (including not-so-conservative Michigan and Oregon) essentially voted to make gay marriage illegal. At that point, general polling showed a 2 to 1 ratio of the populace opposing same-sex marriage.
Fast forward ten years, and you have almost a 50-50 split on the issue. Currently there are 17 states that recognize same-sex marriage as legal. There are also a handful of other states where courts have stepped in to say that certain states' gay marriage bans are unconstitutional. Those rulings are currently under appeal.
There's no question that this particular battle in the culture war has seemingly been lost by social conservatives. Personally, I reached a point about 7-8 years ago where I felt civil unions were a fine compromise on the same-sex marriage issue. The main objection to the statewide gay marriage bans was that gay couples in healthy, committed relationships were not afforded the same financial benefits as a heterosexual married couple. But as many social cons dug in their heels on even ceding that aspect, such a compromise, when offered today, is rejected by gay marriage proponents. While I have opposed same-sex marriage all along, I echo the sentiment of National Review's Jonah Goldberg when he said that this country "has far bigger problems than gays settling down, filing joint tax returns, and arguing about whose turn it is to do the dishes."
So how do Republicans (specifically future presidential candidates) approach the culture war in the immediate future when the majority of their supporters (for now) still oppose gay marriage? Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, lays it out.
"I would want a presidential candidate who understands the public good of marriage," Moore answered, "and one who is not hostile to evangelical concerns, and who is going to protect religious liberty and freedom of conscience." To illustrate such protections of liberty, Moore mentioned ensuring that Catholic adoption agencies are allowed to place children only in traditional-marriage homes.The current Supreme Court case involving Hobby Lobby underscores the next battle in the culture war: religious liberty. Since HL is an organization run by people of the Christian faith, they objected to the Obamacare mandate requiring them to offer products (specifically contraception and the "morning after" pill) in their health plans that violated their religious sensibilities. Refusal to offer such products would result in nearly $1.3 million in daily penalties towards the company, which would assuredly force Hobby Lobby out of business. At the core of the government's argument is that once a private citizen (or group of citizens) decides to incorporate, such 1st amendment protections (no laws impeding free exercise of religion) are no longer applicable. I get that corporations are non-human entities. However, they are run by people nonetheless, and these people still have inalienable rights. Unfortunately, a Colorado baker learned the hard way that it's not that cut and dried. Same with Dr. Ben Carson, who dared to sharply criticize the Affordable Care Act in the presence of President Obama. Some conservative groups also ascertained that speaking out against any progressive causes can result in undue consequences.
Missing from Moore's answer was a firm requirement that a presidential candidate be a vocal opponent of gay marriage. Indeed, at another point in his remarks, Moore noted that evangelicals are "beginning to realize that American culture is moving toward same-sex marriage."
"We have been saying, 'Look, same-sex marriage is inevitable in American culture," Moore continued. "It doesn't mean we should stop talking about it … It means we need to start preparing our churches for a new generation."
Moore's fallback position — there's no other way to describe it — is to insist that once the marriage fight is lost, the beliefs of Americans who oppose homosexual marriage on religious grounds be respected. While Moore rejected those who "suggest, 'Let's simply abandon the question of marriage altogether and simply deal with religious liberty issues,'" there's little doubt he's putting new emphasis on liberty and less on manning the barricades against gay marriage.
I'm still more than willing to state my case as to why marriage is a religious exercise that should be exclusive to one man and one woman. But when the U.S. government is seemingly trampling on the aspects of the first amendment that state they shall not make any law(s) "impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances," I say it's time for us to shift our focus. Free exercise of religion is one battle in the culture that is (or at least should be) absolutely winnable for conservatives.