At a time Republicans are coming to grips with the revolutionary shift in Americans’ attitude toward gay marriage, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie seemed muddled this weekend, perhaps trying to make a play for social conservatives — on the one issue that is a dead-bang loser with non-Republicans and increasingly with young Republicans.
While the Republican Party’s religious conservatives continue to fight against same-sex marriage, its governors appear to be backing off their opposition – in their rhetoric, at least. For some, the shift may be more a matter of tone than substance as the GOP tries to attract new voters ahead of the midterm elections. Nonetheless, it is a dramatic turn for a party that has long been defined by social conservative values.
“I don’t think the Republican Party is fighting it,” Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, said in an interview this weekend at the National Governors Association in Nashville. . . .
That is a very controversial and divisive issue,” said Iowa governor Terry Branstad, suggesting Republicans are better served by focusing on economic issues. “I’m a religious conservative, I’m a Catholic, I’m pro-life. [But] I think the people of Iowa look to me to provide leadership in bringing good jobs and growing the Iowa economy.”
They’ve got that right.
Christie, on one hand, declined to appeal a judicial edict to allow gay marriage in New Jersey. He is quoted as saying, “When I know that I’ve been defeated, you don’t bang your head against the wall anymore and spend taxpayer money to do it.” And yet he pronounced that gay marriage was not a closed matter for the GOP. He said, “I don’t think there’s some referee who stands up and says, ‘OK, now it’s time for you to change your opinion.’ The country will resolve this over a period of time. But do I think it’s resolved? No.”
The reality is that the weight of public opinion has shifted dramatically. Governors like Christie can pontificate all they like, but increasingly their hands are tied in their own states, and the Supreme Court has told the federal government that it is out of the business of countermanding state marriage laws. So the “debate” may be going on outside New Jersey, but there really is no reason for Christie to wade in on whether Virginia or some other states have “resolved” the issue. Ironically, Christie just recently said he wouldn’t give his view on the Hobby Lobby case; it’s a good tactic when it comes to gay marriage as well — especially since it’s now an issue in other governors’ states.
This is especially so given that there is less and less reason to be concerned about the religious right on this issue. Politico reports: “Over the past decade, evangelical support for gay marriage has more than doubled, according to polling by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute. About a quarter of evangelicals now support same-sex unions, the institute has found, with an equal number occupying what researchers at Baylor University last year called the ‘messy middle’ of those who oppose gay marriage on moral grounds but no longer support efforts to outlaw it. The shift is especially visible among young evangelicals under age 35, a near majority of whom now support same-sex marriage. And gay student organizations have recently formed at Christian colleges across the country, including flagship evangelical campuses such as Wheaton College in Illinois and Baylor in Texas.” The report adds, “Even some of the most prominent evangelicals—megachurch pastors, seminary professors and bestselling authors—have publicly announced their support for gay marriage in recent months. Other leaders who remain opposed to gay unions have lowered their profiles on the issue.”
By 2016 there may be even less room for Republican politicians to maneuver. Whether or not the Supreme Court rules that states must recognize gay marriage under the 14th Amendment, marriage is the quintessential 10th Amendment issue – the province of the states. A presidential candidate — especially one running on the premise that the federal government should do its essential functions competently rather than over-extend itself and intrude into every nook and cranny of civil society (including state law matters) — should not be dragged into a fruitless debate. “Each state will decide for itself,” is an entirely proper response now. By 2016 it may be, “The Supreme Court and public opinion have decided the issue.”
This is the essence of tolerance – the wisdom to accept that one’s own views, however virtuous, should not be imposed on fellow citizens. We have a federal system to provide civic diversity; we don’t need a president — or a senator for that matter — to micro-manage evolving social relationships from Washington.
I suspect that Christie knows all this. Next time he should resist the urge to waffle or to throw a bone to anti-gay marriage activists. Sometimes, “no comment” is the perfect response.