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Implementing Andrew McCarthy's Proposed Compromise on the Marriage Question

The so-called social issues continue to vex the Republican Party and the conservative movement, so I appreciate the robust and respectful discussion that we’ve had here, spurred by Roger L. Simon’s article, “How Social Conservatives are Saving Liberalism (Barely).” I don’t think anyone would disagree with his observation that the left will attempt to use the issue of same sex marriage as a “wedge to sabotage a whole lot of change at a time when it couldn’t be more necessary. It dovetails perfectly with the mythological 'war on women,' which we all will be sure to hear about incessantly.” The left excels at using both marriage and women’s issues to paint conservatives as evil, bigoted misogynists.

As a card-carrying social conservative and member of my county Republican Executive Committee, I understand that these are more than academic debates. It’s not overly dramatic to say that the future of the Republican Party may depend upon how we resolve these issues in the coming months and years. Bryan Preston explains the seriousness of the situation:

The fact is, telling us social cons to shut up is a recipe for demoralizing and destroying the GOP at its base. It would take the cornerstone of the Right out of the movement. Coastal libertarians are not the base of the Republican Party. They don’t man phone banks (sorry for being gender normative there), they don’t conduct block walks, they don’t even usually run for office. They can’t even build a viable movement in their own states.

Many in the Republican Party (and the conservative/libertarian movement) think that the answer is to jettison social issues — or worse, to adopt the left’s positions on them —  while banishing social conservatives to dank phone bank rooms (and assuming they will continue to support the approved, well-scripted, non-ideological candidates). But Andrew McCarthy explains that Republicans cannot win elections if they lose the support of conservatives, “including those animated by social issues,” who, by the way, notes Preston, “aren’t actually pushing anything forward, at least not in the cultural arena.”

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McCarthy's follow-up piece on how we should resolve the marriage issue is one of the most thoughtful and irenic things I’ve ever read on this topic in a political forum — ever. It should be widely read and circulated. He says it is worth asking “whether social conservative opposition to gay marriage is a 'no compromise' stance or one on which accommodations can tolerably be made.” McCarthy proposes a solution:

Yet, though there are exceptions and extremes, I believe [religious believers] would accept — not approve but accept – gay marriage if: (a) it were legitimately adopted by popular vote or the state legislative process, and (b) its enactment explicitly recognized the right of religious objectors to refrain from violating their beliefs.

To be sure, such a strategy would require compromise on both sides. I’m not completely convinced that a state referendum or a decision by the legislature would put the issue to rest in every state and as we’ve seen in states that have already legalized same sex marriage, religious liberties have not been protected. But this could be a good starting place for healing this breach in the Republican Party. I believe this has the potential to be a “third way” strategy for the GOP with which both sides can find a way to live.

As it turns out, there are Republicans who have already figured this out and have been carefully reframing the marriage issue, discussing it in the context of the rule of law, religious liberty, and  states' rights.

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Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), in his Tea Party response to the State of the Union, gave a concise, articulate example of how to do this effectively, reading off a list of the ways the Democrats impose inequality on the American people, saying that “inequality…[is] denying citizens their right to define marriage in their states as traditionally or as broadly as their diverse values dictate.”

When Jay Leno asked Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) about his views on gay marriage, Cruz said he supports marriage between one man and one woman, but said states should decide the issue:

But I also think it's a question for the states. Some states have made decisions one way on gay marriage. Some states have made decisions the other way. And that's the great thing about our Constitution, is different states can make different decisions depending on the values of their citizens.

Leno’s audience seemed to accept Cruz’s answer. Notice the periods at the ends of the statements by Cruz and Lee. Leave it to the states. Period, without elaboration. No wandering around in the weeds of the debate about the morality of same sex marriage.

On Monday night, Fox News’ Greta van Susteren interviewed Erika Harold, who is running for Congress in Illinois. A Harvard Law grad and former Miss America, Harold eloquently articulated a vision of conservatism that emphasizes limited government, individual liberty, and her love for the Constitution. Harold has a section on “Constitutional rights” on her website that says:

One of the hallmarks of our democratic system of governance is the respect for individual liberties and the understanding that these enshrined freedoms serve as proper limits on governmental power.  Accordingly, I will oppose efforts to abridge the rights enumerated in our Constitution.  Drawing upon my experience as a lawyer advising faith-based institutions, I will champion the First Amendment rights to the free exercise of religion and the freedom of association.

Beautifully said.

Roger Kimball wisely noted that conservatives, “through a combination of bumbling ineptness and historical accident, have unwittingly ceded the rhetorical high ground to the left.” He said, “If conservatives are going to be successful in 'standing athwart history,' they need to be sure they are standing on solid ground.”

We have a sharp, media-savvy generation of conservatives on the rise, showing us how to effectively navigate the compromise Andrew McCarthy proposes. Perhaps they won’t be successful at “standing athwart” history on the issue of marriage, but, unlike their inarticulate, awkward forebears, they are refusing to cede the “rhetorical high ground” and that’s half the battle.

I think most social conservatives -- including religious conservatives -- could accept this compromise as long as they were convinced that the GOP would fight to defend their religious liberties. The question is whether those on the other side demanding their rights will be willing to accept this “third way” compromise of letting the states decide while defending the religious liberty of conscientious objectors.