Overview:

The Respect for Marriage Act has finally passed both the House and Senate, and is on its way to President Joe Biden to sign into law on Tuesday. Hardline Christian culture warriors fought ferociously against it, but their efforts failed. Not only Republican legislators, but also other major evangelical groups broke ranks to support the bill. These high-level defections may represent an important new development in American politics.

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Hooray! The Respect for Marriage Act finally passed its last vote. It’s now on its way to the president’s desk, where he’ll likely sign it into law on Tuesday. But it got there over the kicking and screaming of the Christian Right, a loose-knit assortment of hardline evangelical culture warriors and creepily-authoritarian hardline Catholics. They’ve opposed this legislation from its first hours, and for a reason. Simply put, they’re right to fear legislation like this. It signals what may be a very powerful shift in the lines of power.

(Author’s note: I use the term “same-sex marriage” instead of other terms like “gay marriage” because same-sex couples can be of any sexual orientation.)

The origins of the Respect for Marriage Act

To explain what the Respect for Marriage Act is, we first have to know what came before it. In this case, the act forms a response to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which passed in 1996 with the signature of President Bill Clinton.

DOMA represented a major win for the Christian Right. First and foremost, it made federally-recognized marriage off-limits to all same-sex couples. The Christian Right vehemently opposed that recognition (and still opposes it). It allowed states to pass laws allowing same-sex marriage, similar to how legalized abortion now operates since the Christian Right achieved their other dream goal of overturning Roe v Wade. But states that didn’t want to recognize those same-sex marriages could refuse to do so.

While DOMA remained in power, I heard heartbreaking stories about how it disrupted the lives of same-sex spouses. One story involved a couple on vacation. As they crossed state lines, they told each other, “We’re officially married now. Oh wait, now we’re not!”

Opponents repealed DOMA in two parts. The first part, United States v Windsor, gave same-sex married couples access to federal marriage benefits like Social Security survivors’ benefits. SCOTUS knocked out the rest of DOMA in 2015 with Obergefell v Hodges.

Since 2015, the American government at all levels treats same-sex marriages the same as opposite-sex marriages.

In 2022, a Democrat in the House of Representatives, Jerry Nadler, sought to codify that equality into law. He’d tried to introduce it as far back as 2009—and again in 2011, 2013, and 2015. But this time, in the wake of a newly-overturned Roe v Wade, it found its walking legs.

From the start, the Christian Right stridently opposed the Respect for Marriage Act

Looking at the writeup of the most recent attempt at passing the Respect for Marriage Act, House Bill 8404, it’s quite clear that it allowed broad exceptions for religious organizations and bigots-for-Jesus to continue to practice bigotry if they wished:

The bill does not (1) affect religious liberties or conscience protections that are available under the Constitution or federal law, (2) require religious organizations to provide goods or services to formally recognize or celebrate a marriage, (3) affect any benefits or rights that do not arise from a marriage, or (4) recognize under federal law any marriage between more than two individuals.

HB 8404

But that didn’t matter.

Almost from the get-go, almost everyone in the Christian Right expressed vehement, one might even say hysterical, opposition to the Respect for Marriage Act. Their objections generally insisted on the dead opposite of all of those disclaimers.

Evangelicals deployed their redefined religious liberty

The Heritage Foundation, an ultraconservative evangelical political group, came out swinging right after HB 8404 came to life. Ignoring the actual disclaimers in the bill itself, their brightest minds declared that it:

. . .would threaten innumerable people and institutions of faith with licensing revocation, loss of government funds, and stripping of non-profit status.

Kevin Roberts for The Heritage Foundation, July 2022

They also had a lot to say about it this past November. They called the Respect for Marriage Act an “effort to undermine religious freedom for millions of Americans.”

(For years now, the evangelicals of the Christian Right have been using a warped, redefined version of religious liberty to disguise their theocratic ambitions.)

Then, they implored Senate Republicans to reject the bill, which had recently passed the House:

[T]he Senate is threatening to empower woke activists inside and outside of government to attack people of faith with this bill that will be used as a cudgel against those who believe in the reality of marriage as between a man and a woman.

Roger Severino for The Heritage Foundation, November 2022

They used some downright alarming militaristic language for their opinion post as well:

Americans were told that same-sex marriage was about live and let live, yet now liberals are going out of their way to undermine the religious freedom of millions of Americans. No matter how the left spins this, this legislation sets a national policy for same-sex marriage that would declare open season on people of faith.

Roger Severino for The Heritage Foundation

Their concerns are largely representative of the entire evangelical arm of the Christian Right. The only big evangelical Christian Right organization I could find that had no statement whatsoever on the Respect for Marriage Act was, perhaps ironically, Focus on the Family. Family Research Council (FRC), feeling frisky after having employed serial sex abuser Josh Duggar for a while, even released a six-page statement attacking HB 8404.

Needless to say, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) also stood firmly against the Respect for Marriage Act. Interestingly, their statement pretends that it was their deep, abiding “love for our neighbors” that led them to oppose yet another set of human rights.

Catholic leaders also attacked the Respect for Marriage Act

But again, the Christian Right doesn’t consist solely of evangelical culture warriors. Hardline Catholics also fill out their ranks. Though most Catholic laypeople tend toward liberal stances, an increasing percentage of them agree with their Dear Leaders on matters of politics.

As for me, I will never forget that it was these exact Catholics who started the anti-abortion crusade that evangelicals eventually glommed onto after Roe was decided. Since then, that unholy union has sullied and corrupted both groups.

Nobody but nobody does swivel-eyed, cruelty-is-the-point, downright-insectoid, inhuman hardline stances on human rights issues like hardline Catholics do. They have somehow managed to scorch every single iota of human kindness from every cell in their bodies.

So when I say that Catholic leaders came out in force against the Respect for Marriage Act, you gotta know they brought their A-game of manipulative sleight-of-hand to the table.

In July 2022, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) sent a letter to the Senate pleading with them to vote against the bill. They, likewise, completely ignored the disclaimers in the HB 8404 writeup:

There is also a question as to whether H.R. 8404 would grant federal recognition to civil marriages of more than two people performed in any state that would allow for them.

People who experience same-sex attraction should be treated with the same respect and compassion as anyone, on account of their human dignity, and never be subject to unjust discrimination. It was never discrimination, however, to simply maintain that an inherent aspect of the definition of marriage itself is the complementarity between the two sexes. Marriage as a lifelong, exclusive union of one man and one woman, and open to new life, is not just a religious ideal – it is, on the whole, what is best for society in a concrete sense, especially for children.

July 22 letter to the US Senate from the USCCB

Yes, because Catholic leaders are so very sensible about how to treat children. And dignity. And, well, <gestures vaguely at everything>. Nothing but complete defeat for the bill would make them happy at all, as they’d demonstrated all along.

But then, a funny thing happened on the way to the final Senate vote

Here’s where things get very interesting.

You see, the Christian Right has, for decades, owned the Republican Party of the United States.

That Southern Strategy of Nixon’s had backfired spectacularly and nearly instantly. Instead of welcoming a bunch of lowlife Southern racists to the Grand Old Party and then using them to gain more power, that cross-shaped tail ended up wagging the entire dog.

By now, Republican politicians are well-used to pandering to this very distinct bloc of ultra-politicized culture warriors. For many years, they’ve made buffoons of themselves by posturing and grandstanding for these excitable, paranoid, unthinkably ambitious Christians.

And then, 51 Republicans (39 Representatives and 12 Senators) publicly defected from the Christian Right’s circus over the Respect for Marriage Act. Those 51 Republicans voted to pass it. I mean, it’s not like a huge percentage of all Republicans. It’s not even a quarter of them, as MSNBC points out. And had they not defected, the bill likely still would have barely passed by the skin of its teeth—the House passed it 258-169, with the Senate passing it last week 61-36. (Three senators abstained.)

Still, these 51 defectors are significant. They don’t represent just a cushion for the final tallies. There’s something more going on here.

And the Christian Right knows it very well.

The Christian Right finds itself increasingly alone in the culture wars

There was a time when right-wing, hardline, culture-war-embracing Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) agreed on almost everything.

But amid the Senate’s voting for the Respect for Marriage Act (which took place November 14-16, with one last vote on November 29), a number of culture warrior groups distanced themselves from the worst of their brethren.

The Mormons, one of the most rabidly anti-gay flavors of Christianity around, wrote of their public support for the bill on November 15, 2022:

We are grateful for the continuing efforts of those who work to ensure the Respect for Marriage Act includes appropriate religious freedom protections while respecting the law and preserving the rights of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

We believe this approach is the way forward.

Statement on the United States Congress Respect for Marriage Act,” November 15, 2022

Considering the trouble they got into for demanding that Mormon children disown their gay or bisexual parents a few years ago, that’s a truly astonishing turnaround.

The same day, the National Association of Evangelicals released their own public support letter. A couple of days later, so did an Orthodox Jewish group. And a few days later, so did the Seventh-Day Adventists.

All of the letters contain much the same sentiment: Legislators had, they all felt, sufficiently protected religious bigots’ right to be bigots.

Meanwhile, Americans have largely moved on from this culture war

At the same time, Americans themselves have repeatedly demonstrated that they generally support marriage equality. Almost 3/4 of respondents to one September 2022 poll expressly supported same-sex marriage rights. A 2021 Gallup poll got similar numbers, with 70% of respondents supporting these rights; support has been trending upward almost completely since 1997, when only 27% of respondents said that.

By now, only two states still contain a majority of people who oppose same-sex marriage rights. Those two states are the happy, functional, harmonious, safe, well-educated, justice-oriented, enviable bastions of compassion and liberty, Mississippi and Arkansas. (Yes, /s to the max.) And even those two states are barely hanging onto those majorities at 55% and 52% respectively. It won’t take either state much to flip to a majority supporting these rights, with 44% and 47% respectively already supporting them.

Even among the most culture-war-embracing evangelicals, we find notable support for same-sex marriage. In Pew Research’s sweeping 2015 Religious Landscape Study, they discovered that 30% of SBC members thought homosexuality “should be accepted.” Similarly, 59% of them favored or strongly favored the idea of same-sex marriage. Considering the denomination’s nonstop attacks on LGBT rights and dignity, that level of support should be impossible.

Similarly, Catholic laity tend to support same-sex marriage. For years now, according to Gallup, they’ve outpaced general American sentiments in that direction. Even Pope Francis has been wavering in this culture war, though American Catholic leaders have only gotten more strident over time.

Using human rights as a political football is a fine Christian tradition, but it requires unity

Chances are very good that those Catholic leaders are using same-sex marriage as a political football, much as the Roman Empire used Christianity itself many centuries ago. That game turned out well for Christians. It’s how they gained real temporal power! So I guess they’ve always kept the tactic in their back pocket.

So whatever Francis wants, his enemies always oppose—just as whatever Democrats want, Republicans always oppose.

YouTube video
President Obama Meets with the GOP,” Key & Peele

My aunt-the-nun would say of them, “they’re just being contrary.”

But being contrary works only insofar as the Christian Right can project a unified front against its many, many enemies. If people keep breaking formation, that shield wall collapses. And they’re losing foot soldiers and officers alike here.

Now the leaders of this culture war can’t even count on their Republican lap dogs to yip and yap and shrike and dance correctly upon command. And observers are noticing, correctly, that these leaders are being contrary no matter what protections the laws provide for their bigotry, because they can’t stand to lose even an inch of ground in their culture wars. One observer even points out the damage that culture warriors have done to real religious liberty in America:

This intransigence, from the bishops and from many conservative Protestant groups as well, has done enormous damage to the cause of religious liberty in America. . . .

Far too many liberal and progressive Americans have become hostile to religious liberty, mostly because they have come to see hostility to gay rights as the signature issue of American believers. Passing religious-liberty legislation has become nearly impossible at either the state or national level. By now, the gridlock is almost entirely partisan.

Douglas Laycock, “The Only Way Forward,” November 29, 2022

He also points out that the defecting legislators, in large part, have made the Respect for Marriage Act possible by defying “their hardliners.”

The shield wall has broken; defectors rush from the field of battle; the hardliners’ leaders howl for blood in tinny, piercing voices.

Authoritarians need dominance to feel safe

For once, the good guys won. But in a very real sense, so did the bad guys. They now have a perfect right to punish same-sex couples within certain established and delineated contexts.

It won’t be enough, though I fully expect they’ll use that power to its utter limits. And every time they do, they will smart anew at the sting of being limited in any way at all.

The Christian Right consists entirely of dysfunctional religious authoritarians. All such people understand is the language of power. They see the shifting and flowing of power in ways that outsiders simply can’t.

This summer, when those hardliners in Catholicism squabbled over Nancy Pelosi’s communion ban, all outsiders really saw was a personal vendetta against her. But what was really happening was another game of political football. She was just the conduit for a very high-level, behind-the-scenes battle between Pope Francis and American hardliners. They’d told Nancy “no,” but then Daddy told her “yes.” And so they were absolutely spluttering furious at him. They lost that squabble, grandly.

Now, the Christian Right has been slapped in the face by not only the defections of many laypeople, but also some of their pet legislators—and even major evangelical organizations and denominations. They are rapidly seeing their sense of power fade into cultural irrelevance.

Nobody can even come close to understanding how serious their fear of irrelevance is without understanding their obsession with dominance. Christian authoritarianism feeds that obsession and grants them divine permission—heck, even a divine command—to seek political power over everyone.

This will be a very interesting next few years, as these authoritarians start dealing with their many losses in the public sphere. They’re nowhere near down for the count, don’t get me wrong. They still wield outsized power in many ways, far more than their dwindling numbers would normally dictate. But that power is getting whittled away bit by screeching bit. Their negotiation and acceptance phases of mourning should prove most interesting.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...