The Battle of Indiana and the Promise of Battles to Come

David French
National Review

David FrenchDavid French is a writer for National Review and National Review Online. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is former president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, former senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, and has taught at Cornell Law School. He is a columnist for Patheos and is the author or co-author of several books, including most recently the number one New York Times-bestselling Rise of ISIS: A Threat We Can’t Ignore. Mr. French is a major in the United States Army Reserve (IRR). In 2007, he was deployed to Iraq, where he was awarded the Bronze Star.

To understand the future, let’s revisit and explain the four truths of the modern culture war.

First, the conflict is not between gay rights and religious liberty, but between the sexual revolution and Christianity. The fury of the gay rights movement was so palpable during the Indiana controversy that it’s easy to forget the Hobby Lobby RFRA case, a case that had nothing to do with gay rights. Abortion battles continue to rage, sometimes with an intensity that matches or exceeds the arguments over gay marriage. (The Wendy Davis filibuster in Texas captured the imagination of the Left just as much as the battles over gay wedding cakes.) And just over the horizon are new, widespread battles over the very definition of what it means to be male or female. Simply put, the sexual revolution questions everything about sexual morality and identity—demanding changes in every aspect of traditional sexual morality and, consequently, orthodox Christian theology.

The gay rights movement is inseparable from the sexual revolution, and the sexual revolution is inseparable from the gay rights movement. The principles of radical sexual autonomy, freedom from any form of moral judgment, and government support to ameliorate the consequences of sexual libertinism are present in the fights over abortion, gay rights, and now transgender issues. Those who surrender on one issue tend to surrender on others as well. With similar moral principles implicated, similar moral outcomes result.

Second, not a single major orthodox Christian denomination is reconsidering its stance on sexual revolution issues. While the media reports on the “progress” of the gay rights movement in mainline denominations—for example, the Presbyterian Church (USA) recently changed its definition of marriage to include same-sex unions—this movement is irrelevant to the much larger Evangelical and orthodox Catholic communities. None of the large orthodox Protestant denominations are changing their stance on human sexuality. Neither is the Catholic Church. Neither are the various branches of Orthodoxy. And these institutions collectively dwarf the liberal, mainline churches when it comes to churchgoing adherents.

Given this reality, the rapid advances of the gay rights movement and its allied sexual revolutionaries—coming as they do largely from liberal and less churchgoing segments of the population—will soon stagnate as they face the challenge of persuading tens of millions of Bible-believing Americans that there is nothing wrong with same-sex marriage. Given the absence of scriptural support for this position, the gay rights movement will face many of the same challenges as the abortion lobby, and will likely meet with a similar lack of success.

Browbeating Christians into submission is not a new tactic, and it is a tactic that has largely failed in the abortion arena—despite the existence of legal doctrines that are dramatically skewed against the pro-life movement. Yet the pro-life movement is as strong as it has ever been, and political outcomes are finally starting to reflect that strength, with jurisdiction after jurisdiction passing ever-stronger pro-life laws.

Third, the religious liberty movement is showing increasing, not decreasing cultural strength. While it is easy to grow discouraged in the face of events like Brendan Eich’s departure from Mozilla, the wave of threats directed at vendors like Memories Pizza, Republican politicians’ continued timidity on “culture war” issues, and the climate of intolerance that exists on campuses and in the mainstream media, the Left’s prominent failures are starting to outnumber its recent successes.

Consider the following:

  • Cultural conservatives answered the Left’s attempted Chick-fil-A boycott with a “buycott” that swamped stores nationwide, even causing some to run out of food for customers eager to show their support for a beloved restaurant, owned by people who share their moral principles.
  • Leftist pressure against Hobby Lobby failed. Customers were either supportive of the owners or indifferent to politics, and boycotts had no effect on Hobby Lobby’s bottom line or its willingness to fight. Not only did Hobby Lobby win its Supreme Court case, its owners are set to open a massive new Museum of the Bible near the National Mall.
  • Efforts to drive Phil Robertson—of Duck Dynasty fame—off the air after controversial comments on sexual morality failed, giving cultural conservatives a victory in a medium (cable television) seen as almost uniformly hostile to orthodox Christianity. While Robertson has remained a polarizing figure (and often says things that make many of his supporters uncomfortable), there has been no serious repeat effort to remove him from the air.
  • In Houston, leftist government officials were forced to backtrack within days after issuing subpoenas requiring area pastors to turn over the contents of their sermons and other communications. The public outcry was so swift and so great that the city capitulated even before a judge could rule on motions to quash.
  • Even in Indiana, as Republican politicians quickly caved to corporate and media pressure, the grassroots response in support of Memories Pizza soon swamped the Left. A GoFundMe account set up to support the owners raised more than $800,000 in small donations in a matter of days (including over $200,000 in one day), putting the pizza restaurant in a far superior financial position than it had enjoyed before the controversy. The message was clear: Cultural conservatives are not, in fact, culturally isolated but rather have the support of millions of Americans who oppose leftist bullying.

While the Left has proven adept at using social media, so have cultural conservatives. And now when the Left overreaches, attempting to drive Christians out of work, there is often an opposite (and greater) reaction.

Fourth, conservative public intellectuals are holding firm in defense of life and religious freedom. Throughout the Battle of Indiana, there was striking unity among leading conservative thinkers. The consensus was clear even among those who support gay marriage: The Left had become illiberal and dangerous. A pluralistic nation must have room for cultural dissenters, and the desire to shame and blacklist individuals and destroy businesses had to be opposed, and opposed vigorously.

In fact, one was more likely to read about discomfort on the Left at some of the mob tactics than about discomfort among conservatives at the defense of religious liberty. This unanimity left Republican politicians relatively isolated, in the familiar position of abandoning their culturally conservative constituents to do the bidding of their corporate supporters.

Yet even this is likely to change. Most politicians are cultural followers, not cultural leaders, and if the base and the intellectual core of the conservative movement remain relatively united, Republican politicians will eventually bend. Once again, the abortion example is instructive. The pro-life movement has been gathering strength for more than a generation, but it is only in recent years that politicians have taken truly meaningful action. The pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute estimates that there were more pro-life bills passed in the last three years than in the previous decade.