Want Some Cheese With That Whine, Conservatives?

If you want a good example of what cultural conservatives are telling themselves about the backlash over Indiana’s (and probably Arkansas‘ before the week is out) “religious liberty” law, there’s none better than the pity party Timothy Carney held at the Washington Examiner yesterday afternoon:

[O]ur culture is speeding down the icy Left slope of the cultural mountain, and a few conservatives are now dragging their hands on the ice to slow the acceleration — and the Left is crying that this will send us catapulting back uphill.

Religious liberty is the terms of surrender the Right is requesting in the culture war. It is conservative America saying to the cultural and political elites, you have your gay marriage, your no-fault divorce, your obscene music and television, your indoctrinating public schools and your abortion-on-demand. May we please be allowed to not participate in these?

I don’t know if actual tears were falling on the keyboard as Carney typed this column, but he certainly wants to give the impression that he speaks for a poor, persecuted minority that has no interest in controlling anybody’s behavior but its own.

Which is, of course, complete hooey.

Yes, conservatives have little choice but to accept legal and political setbacks over marriage equality, but they’re making it as clear as ever that given the opportunity they’d reverse those trends, ban gay marriage all over again and probably bring back the sodomy laws to boot. Look at the huge field of Republican proto-candidates for president. Do any of them actually support marriage equality? Sure, they’ll not talk about it or mumble about it being a state matter or engage in various other evasions, but they’re a long way from “surrendering.” And that’s even more obvious on the abortion issue where (a) the only meaningful difference among 99% of Republican politicians is about whether 99% or 100% of abortions should be banned; (b) Republican controlled state governments are beavering away at new restrictions that strike mainly at the availability of any abortion services; and (c) the right to choose hangs by a thread in a Supreme Court that any Republican President would be lynched for failing to tilt with his or her next appointment into a reversal of Roe v. Wade.

All this weepy talk of being attacked while trying to surrender also misses the even more obvious point that conservatives are hardly impotent politically; they do sorta control Congress and a majority of states.

So no, there’s no real “surrender” going on here, and Lord knows conservatives aren’t withdrawing from political combat; otherwise Carney would have punctuated his long whine by quitting his job. What they are doing is better understood as a strategic retreat: unable to outlaw or (increasingly) even to stigmatize gay behavior as a matter of law, they’re working to protect private discrimination. It’s what a big part of their constituency expects of them, and it’s the obvious next front–not some sort of Appomattox–in the culture wars.

And yes, we’ve seen and heard this all before, in the battle over racial discrimination. My weekly column at TPMCafe is all about that. It was most evident in the battle against the extension of civil rights laws to reach beyond public de jure segregation into private de facto segregation–the line in the sand that the Republican presidential nominee tried to draw in 1964. But let’s also don’t forget the fight to thwart school integration via the “segregation academies” that churches–yes, some of the same churches now whining about being persecuted for refusing to bend the knee to the Great Gay Power–largely organized. The Church of the Day Before Yesterday–the identification of Christianity with the secular culture of the 1950s or earlier–remains a powerful force even if the demonic change being resisted morphs from race-mixing to legalized sodomy to baby-killing by uppity women.

So why all the phony claims that cultural conservatism is folding its tent as a political force? There are a lot of reasons, but the most basic is probably this: if and when the Cultural Right fully gains power via a Republican Party that still is entirely in its thrall, the idea that it has come back from the brink of extinction gives its leaders greater flexibility about how and where to execute the counter-revolution, and its followers the satisfaction of a divinely ordained vindication–and then sweet vengeance.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.