Where Things Stand: Watching The Christian Right’s Power Play Out In Real Time

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WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 10: Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) arrives to a news conference with Republican senators to discuss the origins of COVID-19 on June 10, 2021 in Washington, DC. The senators claim companies like Faceboo... WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 10: Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) arrives to a news conference with Republican senators to discuss the origins of COVID-19 on June 10, 2021 in Washington, DC. The senators claim companies like Facebook have censored information regarding the origin of the coronavirus and treatment methods. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images) MORE LESS

I made the point yesterday that the language Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) is using to clean up his past marriage equality remarks — earlier this summer he said he had no reason to “oppose” codifying same-sex marriage into federal law — is an obvious cave to the Christian right. In frantic messaging in recent days, Johnson has flip-flopped on his previous position as he struggles with the impossible task of casting himself as a reasonable guy to Wisconsin voters and a reliable ally to Christian conservatives.

The vulnerable senator, who is up for reelection in November, now says he not only doesn’t support the bill as written — i.e. the House-passed version of the legislation — but he’s now also concerned about the threat that federal protections for same-sex marriage might pose for “religious liberty.” That language is not unintentional on Johnson’s part — a gesture to the Christian right contention that any protected right with which they disagree is in fact an imposition on their liberty.

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) told reporters yesterday that a vote on the bill could happen in coming weeks. He also suggested that Democrats would rather vote on the bill as its own package with enough GOP support to overcome the filibuster then to have to tuck it into a short term spending bill. But getting Republicans on the record on same-sex marriage ahead of the midterms is proving to be an uphill battle as some key senators, like Johnson, come out against the bill. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) even used the same religious liberties language in explaining his opposition.

As we wait for more clarity on the dynamics of any possible impending vote, I want to re-up this piece from last month from TPM contributor Sarah Posner.

In it, Sarah argues that the leaders of the Christian right’s powerful political apparatus are already signaling that, for them, Obergefell is the new Roe. Senate Republicans have heard the message. And they fear the movement’s power.

Per Sarah:

Republican senators are keenly aware of this. That is why South Dakota’s John Thune and Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy accused Democrats of introducing the bill to distract from inflation. It is why Florida’s Marco Rubio called it “a stupid waste of time,” and claimed gay Floridians are “pissed off” about something else — high gas prices. And it is why Maine’s Susan Collins, who was one of the bill’s four original Republican supporters, came up with the laughing-crying emoji argument that, because Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) had struck a surprise deal on Democratic legislative priorities late last month, she would struggle to win fellow Republicans’ support for the marriage bill. “[I]t was a very unfortunate move that destroys the many bipartisan efforts that are under way,” she told HuffPost.

These were opportune but risible excuses. The reality is these Republicans were already seeing an avalanche of opposition from Christian right political advocacy organizations.

As Sarah outlined in her piece, conservative evangelical lobbying groups began messaging against federal protections for same-sex marriage before the House even voted on the bill, knowing full well that allowing the bill to become law would throw a roadblock in front of the uber-conservative Supreme Court as it eyes overturning Obergefell next. From launching messaging campaigns to sending letters to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) warning against the bill, the legal and political arms of the Christian right powerhouse have made it clear to Republican senators where they should stand on this issue if they want to keep their jobs.

On top of being behind in the polls, that’s part of why Johnson’s clean up has been so desperate. What hope Democrats and advocates may have placed in Johnson’s initial remarks, the enduring support of the bill from just four GOP senators will not be enough to stand up against the forces of the religious-right’s agenda. We’ll see if more fall in line.

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