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Wilkinson: Religious right runs out of steam in Arizona

First Published Mar 04 2014 10:37 am • Last Updated Mar 04 2014 10:37 am

Religious conservatives have had a good run. Since the 1970s, when Paul Weyrich and other conservative thinkers recognized that conservative evangelical Christians had untapped potential to change U.S. elections, the "religious right" has been a powerful, if always secondary, force in the Republican Party. Conservatives did such a thorough job of rallying evangelicals around causes such as abortion that the word "evangelical" in a political context is now almost synonymous with "conservative."

Jerry Falwell’s politicking didn’t derail the movement. Pat Robertson’s egomania didn’t kill it. Ralph Reed’s "humping" for corporations didn’t bring it to its knees. But last week’s legislative debacle in Arizona might. Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a bill, sponsored by fellow Republicans, to allow business owners the right to deny service to gay and lesbian customers on the basis of religious beliefs. It was a jarring example of religious conservatives in open, full-throated conflict with mainstream culture.

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For further evidence, I submit this remarkably un-self-conscious teaser about the Academy Awards from, of all places, the New York Times:

"After missteps in recent years, Oscars producers are returning to safer middle ground with the selection of Ellen DeGeneres."

That’s right. A woman who everyone in the United States knows — and everyone knows is a lesbian — was considered the safe choice to host one of the most mainstream, popular television events of the year, watched by some 40 million Americans.

Sure, the New York Times is a culturally liberal institution. It’s also correct in this case: DeGeneres, sunny, spunky and supportive, is the antithesis of hip or edgy. She’s a Middle America kinda gal, far more Peoria than Williamsburg. She makes her living in daytime television, for goodness sakes. And the number of Americans who think DeGeneres shouldn’t have exactly the same civil rights as heterosexuals is shrinking fast.

Ross Douthat wrote Sunday that the same-sex marriage battle is over and that religious conservatives await only the terms of their surrender. Sounds about right. There is a reason (beyond liberal condescension, which is real enough) that religious objections to gay marriage are met with rising intolerance. The rationales for opposing it are shabby and unconvincing, and too many Americans have already reached the conclusion that their own opposition to gay marriage was a product of cultural habit, not defensible principle.

Conservative religious reasoning on abortion and other issues has stronger roots. By contrast, conservative moral arguments against homosexuality in general, and same-sex marriage in particular, are hopelessly weak, relying on definitions of marriage — child-rearing only, please! — to which heterosexuals are exempt. The Bible was shamelessly invoked in previous generations to endorse slavery and, later, to keep races separate. Yet these catastrophic mistakes have made conservatives no less eager to issue omniscient declarations in God’s name on gay marriage (and more). Relativism has deep faults, but at least it encourages more humility than that.

Conservatives’ selective interpretations of the biblical text are so obvious it seems pedantic to point them out. Among many religious conservatives, the Bible’s prohibitions on homosexuality are deemed literal, its calls to relinquish wealth and possessions metaphorical. As the Church Lady used to say: "How convenient." Modern accommodations are made to adultery and divorce because, well, because. Meanwhile, modern accommodations to homosexuality can’t be tolerated because, well, because not.

Do religiously conservative Americans never stop to think what a miracle it is that the Word of God, as interpreted by themselves, just happens to endorse the precise cultural preferences of religiously conservative Americans at any given point in time?

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The attempt by religious conservatives in Arizona to escalate the battle against gay rights was a political fiasco, further undermining the credibility of conservative religious claims. Tens of millions of Americans, religious and otherwise, have made peace with gay equality. Religious conservatives will take a little longer not because they are religious, but because they are conservatives.

Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter at @fdwilkinson.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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