Authored for RenewAmerica.
The Republican National Committee on Friday unanimously reaffirmed its support for traditional marriage. It seemed to contradict the party’s “Growth & Opportunity” report that just last month declared, “We need to campaign among… gay Americans and demonstrate we care about them, too.” The party’s ongoing failure to adopt a consistent position has hurt it and the conservative movement at large.
Republican leaders seem panicked trying to figure out which position would be the most electorally feasible. If they were motivated more by ideology than winning elections, they might be able to develop a consistent message that worked on all Americans without pandering to individual groups.
Conservatives have missed a chance to use the debate to explain why freedoms to speech and association were valuable.
The legal promulgation of gay marriage generally means that religious Americans lose their rights to free speech and association. For instance, when some religious bakery owners in Oregon refused to provide a cake for a gay wedding earlier this year on grounds it violated their religious beliefs, the gay couple involved filed a civil rights complaint with the state. Their main complaint was that they wanted the bakery to provide them with a cake, but also that they didn’t like scriptural quotations shared by the bakers.
As an argument for gay marriage, homosexuals often complain that they do not share the freedom enjoyed by heterosexuals to associate through marriage. Both sides of the debate see their right to freedom of association at stake.
Democrats offer a consistent message on the entire issue. Quite plainly, they are very willing to explicitly acknowledge that they do not support freedom of association, and they are happy to decide which side should have that right and which should not. In this case, they don’t believe religious folks should have the freedom.
Instead of defending the constitutional protection of freedom for each side, Republican legislators—who generally have a weak grasp of conservative philosophy—respond inconsistently and on Democrats’ terms.
In Minnesota, to use one example, Republican state Sen. Branden Petersen co-authored legislation this year that would recognize gay marriage.
A better idea would have been to propose legislation that withdrew the state from participation in marriage. It would have been a measure that the gay lobby could support, because it would have allowed them greater freedom; and it would have been a measure that many conservative evangelicals could support, because it would have allowed them to co-exist while retaining their rights.
Democrats would have been the only group to oppose such legislation. They believe it is the place of government to determine who should receive which rights. That would become evident in any vote allowing for universal freedom. Instead of fracturing the Republican Party, gay marriage could be used to strengthen it.
The Constitution’s framework offers an easy, conservative solution. Writing in the Federalist Papers, James Madison observed that factions in the nation would tend to be “inflamed… with mutual animosity,” rendered “more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”
The solution at which he and other founding fathers arrived, encapsulated by the First Amendment, was to allow those factions to co-exist without the right to infringe on each other’s rights. Instead of democratic mob rule, America was to be a constitutional republic with freedom of speech and association.
Democrats consistently say those rights were only meant for their own favored political constituencies; Republicans vacillate and ultimately come across as saying no one should have the rights.
As a result of Republicans’ inability to explain themselves, more people are being driven to the conclusion that they must not like “limited government” since that’s the adjective Republicans use in describing their bungled message.
A Gallup poll released this month suggested that 26 percent of Republicans said their chief complaint about their party was its inflexibility or unwillingness to compromise. Some people take that to mean the party should change its positions entirely. Others take it to mean that the party should take no positions at all.
Instead of reaching these extreme conclusions, Republican officials should realize that their message does seem to be rather disagreeable—to everyone. It has little to do with the party’s policy positions and everything to do with messaging. Its alienation of both sides of the gay marriage debate is the foremost example of it.