The tragedy in Orlando reveals that the three issues that once made up the Republican’s “winning formula” may have finally ripened into political poison for the GOP.
In 1994, James Inhofe told Oklahoma voters that the senate race could be summed up in “the three Gs — God, Gays, and Guns.” Inhofe, whose victory propelled him into the senate the same year that Republicans took both houses of Congress, wasn’t just summarizing the Oklahoma senate race. He identified the major support beams of the GOPs “culture war” platform that had a significant impact on politics throughout the 1990s, and delivered significant victories for Republicans well into the 2000s. It was defined by an insistence that government endorse and enforce conservative Christian morality, codify anti-gay discrimination and prohibit LGBT equality, and allow almost unrestricted access to guns.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attack, hate crime, and worst mass shooting in US history to date at the LGBT nightclub Pulse, in Orlando, Florida — which left 49 dead and 53 injured — the GOPs winning formula seems to have ripened into political poison for the GOP. Republican’s responses to Orlando paint a picture of a party desperately spinning its wheels to catch up to the American mainstream.
When Inhofe coined his famous phrase, the Christian Coalition was in its heyday, and evangelical Christians enjoyed their strongest period of influence over the Republican party. Created by televangelist and failed presidential candidate Pat Robertson in 1989, the Christian Coalition filled a vacuum left by the dissolution of the Moral Majority, headed by televangelist Jerry Falwell, which mobilized conservative Christian voters during the 1980.
The Coalition was headquartered in Chesapeake, Virginia in 1990, when it began producing non-partisan voter guides and distributing them to conservative Christian churches. Its strategy of targeting low-profile elections, focusing get-out-the-vote efforts on conservative churches, and instructing candidates to hide their views from the public — by avoiding public appearance and refusing to fill our questionnaires. By 1997 the organization was ranked by Fortune magazine as the 7th most powerful political organization in America.
By 2002 — burdened by declining donations, racial discrimination lawsuits, and the loss of its tax-exempt status, the combination of the above, combined with the loss of its tax-exempt status due to Coalition had to abandon its Washington headquarter for a suburb of Charleston, South Carolina, and cut its lobbying staff from 12 to one. In the end, the Coalition was so broke it was sued by the moving company that helped it decamp to Charleston, for failing to pay $1,890 in moving fees. By 2005, it couldn’t even pay its postage bill.
The decline of the Christian Coalition paralleled a shift in the nation’s religious demographics for which the GOP, having spent decades establishing its dependence upon a conservative evangelical base, never saw coming. In seven years, the number of Americans who identify as Christian dropped nearly 8 percent — from 78 percent in 2007 to 71 percent in 2014 — according to the Pew Research Center. At the same time, the number of Americans identifying as having no religious affiliation (referred to as the “nones”) grew from 16 percent to 20 percent.
The growth in non-belief along the growth in racial/ethnic diversity delivered a one-two punch to the vote share of the GOP’s white evangelical base. While most Americans still identify as Christians, they are a lot less white and Protestant than ever before. New data from the American Values Atlas shows that white Christians are a minority in 19 states. The ratio of white Catholics to Hispanic Catholics is now 2 to 1, compared to 3 to 1 in the 2000s.
As Amanda Marcotte writes, “To look at the Christian right now is to see a people who know they are losing power,” and trying desperately to hold on to it. There’s no greater example of that desperation than the evangelical movements awkward embrace of billionaire adulterer and philanderer Donald Trump as the presumptive nominee. The evangelical movement, to which Republicans long ago joined their fate, is seriously trying to hitch its star to a man who first couldn’t name his favorite bible verse, then finally settled on one that Jesus actually repudiated, and tells evangelical leaders to ignore the Bible where it’s too “politically correct.”
Evangelicals are stuck with Trump in the same say the GOP is stuck with them. Evangelicals are stuck with the GOP, and thus stuck with Trump, as their last best hope at holding on even a semblance of the power they once enjoyed. The GOP is stuck with evangelicals, because no Republican president has won without them. But a shrinking constituency obsessed with fighting a “culture war” its already lost may not a winning coalition make.
In the aftermath of the Orlando massacre, Republicans couldn’t even bring themselves to say that LGBT Americans were the primary victims of a hate crime and terrorist act. The RNC issued a tepid statement denouncing, “violence against any group of people simply for their lifestyle or orientation.” Days later the sentence was stricken and revised to refer to “a terrorist attack against any American.” Florida governor Rick Scott repeatedly refused to mention that the Orlando victim were targeted because of their LGBT identities.
President Obama spoke directly to “our friends – our fellow Americans – who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender,” denounced the massacre as “an act of terror and an act of hate,” and yet invoked unity by declaring “an attack on any American … is an attack on all of us.” By contrast, Republicans had tread carefully, because any reference to the LGBT community could cause them to lose what’s left of their evangelical support.
Republican lawmakers still can’t risk incurring the wrath of evangelical leaders who were trumpeting that the LGBT victim in Orlando “deserve what they got.” Not to mention members of their own caucus. Just two weeks before the Orlando massacre, at a Republican caucus meeting, the day after House Republicans blocked a vote to protect LGBT employees of federal contractors from discrimination, Rep. Rick Allen (R-Ga.) read a bible passage suggesting that gay people were “worthy of death.”
Ironically, after Orlando, Republicans attempted to reach out to the LGBT community in the most tone-deaf and offensive way possible — by trying to pit the LGBT community against Muslim Americans. In what may be the most appalling pitch ever to LGBT Americans, Republicans and their evangelical allies actually suggested that they were better friends, because Democrats had chosen Muslims over gays, and at least they weren’t trying to kill us.
- At a press conference days after Orlando, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said of Hillary Clinton, “She can’t have it both ways,” Trump said. “She can’t claim to be supportive of these communities while trying to increase the number of people coming in who want to oppress them.” Trump added, “Ask yourself, who is really the friend of women and the LGBT community, Donald Trump, with his actions, or Hillary Clinton with her words.” A week later, Trump met with over 400 of the most influential evangelical advocate — including Focus on the Family’s James Dobson to the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins.
- Trump also recruited televangelist Frank Amedia — a man who recently declared his readiness to be thrown into a furnace in protest of LGBT equality — as his “Christian policy advisor.” Amedia helped arrange Trump’s meeting with evangelical leaders.
- An op-ed denouncing “progressive silence over Islamic extremism” as “homophobic,” and warning LGBT Americans to “take off the blinders,” because “progressives will abandon you when Islamic extremism is at your door,” landed in my inbox.
- Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) said on a radio show: “Democrats are in a perplexing position. On the one hand, they’re trying to appeal to the gay community, but, on the other hand, they’re trying to also appeal to the Muslim community, which, if it had its way, would kill every homosexual in the United States of America.”
- Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) noted on the Senate floor, “I would note one aspect of the attack on Sunday morning widely reported was it was at a gay bar. And there are great many Democrats who are fond of calling themselves champions of the LGBT community,” and alluded to a “vicious ideology that systematically murders homosexuals, that throws them off buildings, that buries them under rocks.”
The biggest problem Republicans have with this approach is that they have long stood by conservative Christian extremists who which us just as dead as they say Islamic extremists do. The international LGBT community has long been addressing the human rights abuses against LGBT people worldwide, through the work of organizations like Outright Action International (formerly the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Council). Using the Orlando tragedy to turn us against Muslims won’t work, because we’ve long stood in solidarity with our LGBT Muslim brothers and sisters.
We also know that Republicans have long-standing ties to evangelical Christian extremists who want us just as dead a they say Muslim extremists do. Just last year, several GOP presidential candidates including Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and Mike Huckabee attended conference organized by Kevin Swanson, who has called on the government to execute gay people. Swanson was an advocate of the Uganda law making homosexuality a crime punishable by imprisonment or death, and saw it as a model. At the conference, Swanson even reiterated his death penalty call, amending it to give gays “time to repent” beforehand.
Again, Republicans and base are light-years behind the rest of the country. In the year since the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land, conservatives have introduced over 200 anti-LGBT laws, and anti-LGBT violence has noticeably increased. But none of that changes that:
- A majority of Americans — 55 percent according to Pew Research Center — now support same-sex marriage. Gay marriages are up, too.
- According to a recent survey, almost half of same-sex couples — 49 percent, up from 38 percent a year ago — are now married
- The economy has benefited, as same-sex couples spent over $1.3 billion on weddings, putting that money back into the economy.
And this week came the news that the Miss America pageant’s first openly gay contestant will have a shot at becoming the first openly gay Miss America. The culture war is over, and it’s pretty clear who won.
The Orlando massacre has brought the national debate back around to gun control, and Republicans are doing just what they did after Sandy Hook and San Bernardino: nothing. Senate Republicans voted down a series of gun control measures that would have expanded background checks (supported by 92 percent of Americans, according to a CNN/ORC poll) and banned individuals on federal watch lists from buying guns (supported by 85 percent of Americans).
However, House Democrats refused to let House GOP leadership ignore the issue, and staged a sit-in that took over the headlines despite Republican efforts to brush it aside. Led by civil right veteran Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) Democrats remembered the Orlando victims, as well as victims of gun violence from all over the country. Some brought home the personal nature of the issue.
- Former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was severely injured in a 2011 shooting, shared a letter read on the floor by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-N.Y.). “Speaking is difficult for me,” Giffords wrote. “But I haven’t been silenced. And neither should the American people. Their Representatives must vote to prevent gun violence.
- Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) spoke of her firsthand experience with gun violence as a victim of domestic abuse. “I lived in a house with a man who should not have had a gun,” Dingell said. “I know what it’s like to see a gun pointed at you and wonder if you are going to live.”
- Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) brought to the House floor the bullet that nearly killed her during the Jonestown massacre of 1978, when Speier was part of as a congressional aide to Rep. Leo Ryan (D-Calif.), who was killed with four others while investigating abuses of the cult in Guyana.
Republicans, by contrast, are stuck with a candidate whose support for guns in bars and nightclubs was too much even for the National Rifle Association.
More than 30 years of mass shootings, has changed the debate on gun control. This week Democrats seized the moment to stand up and represent the majority of Americans who support reasonable measures to keep guns out of the hands potential terrorists, felons, and the mentally ill. Republicans have no good way out of this mess.
Once upon a time, “God, Gays, and Guns,” was a winning formula for the GOP. Today, it’s starting to look more like political poison.