After passing the House with the support of 47 Republicans, the Respect for Marriage Act, which would protect marriage rights for same-sex couples if the Supreme Court were to overturn its 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, faces much dimmer prospects in the Senate. There is one reason why: the Christian right still controls the Republican Party. Movement leaders know it took 50 years to reverse Roe, and are committed to a similar strategy to undermine and eventually overturn Obergefell. With abundant clues in the Supreme Court’s June decision overturning Roe that LGBTQ rights could be next on the chopping block, it is unimaginable that movement leaders would sink that goal by allowing this bill to become law.
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. Family Research Council Action, the political arm of the Family Research Council church, began calling the bill the “(Dis)Respect for Marriage Act” before it reached the House floor. The group reminded Republican lawmakers that their party platform states, “[t]raditional marriage and family, based on marriage between one man and one woman, is the foundation for a free society and has for millennia been entrusted with rearing children and instilling cultural values.” In an email blast, FRC Action sowed fear among its supporters that the bill would be used to persecute them and take away their religious freedom. It reminded them that in the 1970s, the IRS revoked the tax exemption of the segregationist, fundamentalist Christian Bob Jones University over its racist policies, suggesting, despite the fact that it hasn’t happened in the seven years since Obergefell, that universities and nonprofits that oppose marriage equality could face a similar fate. The American Family Association called the bill “an Orwellian attempt to pretend that the Court’s very recent discovery of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage is not controversial and offensive to many people around the country.” The Heritage Foundation called it a “publicity stunt” aimed at “tak[ing] the spotlight off progressives’ radical policies and paint conservatives as bigots — and all this conveniently before the midterm elections.”
Despite the Christian right’s protestations that same-sex marriage is unpopular, it is actually extremely popular, with Gallup earlier this year finding 71 percent of Americans — a record high — supporting it. What’s more, most religious people do not think protections for same-sex marriage infringe on their religious freedom. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, “Majorities of most major religious groups support same-sex marriage,” with one significant outlier: white evangelicals. Only 35 percent of white evangelicals support marriage equality — and their views drive the Republican Party. In the Senate, the filibuster rules reinforce this tyranny of the minority.
There are two reasons for the Christian right’s dominance of the GOP. One is that while white evangelicals make up just 15 percent of the population, they are highly enthusiastic voters; they made up 28 percent of the 2020 electorate, and 76 percent of them voted for Donald Trump. They make up large swaths of the electorate in red states, and are likely to be motivated to engage in backlash against a Republican senator seen to betray the cause.
The second reason is that the Christian right — made up of white evangelical activists along with other conservative white Protestants and Catholics — has built a formidable political and legal machine designed to position themselves as defenders of the true faith and the real Christian America. A well-funded constellation of legal and political organizations has been inordinately successful in amassing power, both in Republican Washington, red state legislatures, and the federal judiciary. It is designed to flex its muscles at moments like these.
That network’s strength has been on full display in recent weeks. The legal powerhouse Alliance Defending Freedom took the lead on a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opposing the bill, signed by more than 80 religious right leaders. The letter denounced the bill “in the strongest possible terms,” characterizing it as “an attack on millions of Americans, particularly people of faith, who believe marriage is between one man and one woman and that legitimate distinctions exist between men and women concerning family formation that should be recognized in the law.”
As I reported for TPM in 2019, ADF has not only led the way in transforming our jurisprudence against church-state separation and reproductive and LGBTQ rights, it has cultivated and cemented relationships that ensure its proximity to power. It counts among its compatriots Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett and Senator Josh Hawley, who have both been faculty speakers for its training program for aspiring Christian lawyers. In 2019, Hawley single-handedly killed the appointment of a federal judge, nominated by Trump, because he had once litigated a case against ADF. Hawley’s wife, also a lawyer, now works for ADF, and played a key role in the strategy to overturn Roe.
After the House vote, FRC Action pledged to support primary challengers to any Republicans who voted for the bill. Some won’t face this blowback since they are retiring or have already lost their primaries. FRC Action’s first target was Michigan’s Peter Meijer, who did lose his August 2 primary, but likely would have anyway because of his vote for Trump’s impeachment. Nonetheless, the message certainly is not lost on Republicans in the Senate where, unlike the House, GOP votes are necessary to get the bill past a filibuster. No one wants to be the one who tips the scales in favor of the bill, and incurs the wrath of Christian right operatives and the get-out-the-vote machine at the disposal of a primary challenger.
Lately the media has taken a greater interest in exploring and reporting on Christian nationalism. It is, however, crucial not only to understand what Christian nationalism is as an ideology, but to understand how right-wing operatives have attained the power to subvert democratic structures and democratic values in order to make it the core of anti-majoritarian rule. The opposition to the Respect for Marriage Act is an object lesson in how that power works. Christian right operatives and lawyers argue that America is a Christian nation, that Christians’ right to practice their religion must be protected from secular, progressive incursions like constitutional rights for LGBTQ people, and that it is the duty of judges and government officials to ensure that these “biblical” values are secured. With a sympathetic majority on the Supreme Court and a razor-thin Democratic majority in the Senate with filibuster rules favorable to conservatives, the Christian right has every incentive to deploy this power. And because Republicans no longer have an alternative base upon which to build a coalition, they will continue to relent.
Sarah Posner is a journalist and author of the book “Unholy: How White Christian Nationalists Powered the Trump Presidency and the Devastating Legacy They Left Behind.” She is currently a reporting fellow with Type Investigations and a journalism fellow at Recovering Truth.