America’s evangelicals are lashing out with new fury in their sex-obsessed culture wars as the 2016 Republican presidential race gets underway and the Supreme Court is soon expected to rule on same-sex marriage.
The religious right’s fury is aimed at new and old targets, focusing on laws that affect same-sex couples, and opening new attacks against abortion.
“The culture war is not ending. It is just taking on different forms,” said Linsey Pecikonis, communications director for Equality California.
The newest targets include a range of proposed state laws that would legalize anti-LGBT discrimination in the private sector under the guise of "religious liberty.” Some, such as an Indiana law that was ridiculed before it was narrowed to apply only to churches and religious non-profits, would have allowed all employees to discriminate based on religious beliefs. In Kansas, where a religious liberty bill died last year after unexpected opposition by corporate leaders, a new bill has been introduced that would legalize anti-LGBT discrimination by students attending state universities.
Other anti-LGBT efforts are less well known, such as bills barring local and state government employees from issuing marriage licenses, regardless of federal court rulings declaring same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional. That has been introduced in Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas.
“We’re seeing a backlash to all the gains we’ve made recently and the culture war continues,” said Equality California’s Pecikonis. “Opponents of progressive social values feel threatened and have taken to the state legislatures to make sure any progress we've made federally does not happen at home.”
Meanwhile, the religious right’s other sex-based obsession—abortion—has come under renewed attack in states where women already face draconian restrictions.
In Oklahoma and Kansas, where the anti-choice movement began in the 1990s, new laws have been signed or are headed to the governor that ban a common second-trimester abortion procedure, a new tactic in the religious right’s efforts to block abortion. Similar laws have been proposed in Missouri, South Carolina and South Dakota. The Kansas law comes against a political backdrop where Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax cuts have caused a major deficit, public schools to close early, and deep cuts in social services.
“The public debate and culture wars we’re seeing emerge here in Kansas and in other states is deeply troubling,” said Julie Burkhart, founder and CEO of Trust Women and South Wind Women’s Center, one of three abortion providers in Kansas. “Lawmakers are placing politics above the health of their communities and we’re all suffering as a result. There really should be no debate—abortion is a legal and safe medical procedure. I trust doctors, not politicians. to set and practice the standard of care, and I trust women to make the best decisions for themselves and their families.”
Meanwhile, in Arkansas this week, Republican Gov. Asa Hutchison signed an anti-abortion bill with no scientific basis. It requires providers to inform women seeking medication abortions that the process might be “reversible” if they change their mind.
“They are winning on abortion, that’s for sure,” said Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas. “These religious freedom bills are definitely a backlash… but that’s not only bad thing that’s happening. All of the Great Society programs are under full bore assault here… It will take years to undo this damage.”
These attacks on new and old targets are coming as GOP presidential candidates try to outdo each other with evangelical credentials in early states such as Iowa, where religious conservatives have won in the past: Rick Santorum in 2012 and Mike Huckabee in 2008. When speaking in Iowa in January, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker boasted he passed “pro-life legislation” and “defunded Planned Parenthood.” Even the purported moderate candidate, ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has expounded on his conversion to Catholicism, noting that in 1999 he signed a law creating a “Choose Life” license plate.
The backlash against court rulings upholding same-sex marriage and the Republican presidential jockeying has revived the culture wars. And should the U.S. Supreme Court uphold same-sex marriage as constitutional, as many legal experts expect, it’s likely the backlash will grow.
That pattern was also seen in the late 1960s after the Supreme Court legalized interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia in 1967.
“The similarities are so remarkable,” said David Brown, a lawyer from Lawrence, Kansas, who is representing a lesbian couple who sued over unequal treatment under Kansas tax laws. “When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states couldn’t ban interracial marriages, there were all sorts of problems and various churches didn’t recognize that. If you go back and pay attention to the commentaries after that, there’s all sorts of, ‘This is going to be horrible. The world is going to end.’”
Brown commented last September for AlterNet’s series on LGBT discrimination in Kansas. At that time, statewide religious leaders like Rev. Terry Fox of Wichita explained that he and others feared the "homosexual agenda” and spoke of the "overall breakdown of America.” Rep. Tim Hueskamp, R-KS, said the religious right was under attack from the national media and that religious freedom laws were necessary because conservative Christians were a persecuted minority.
“What you see here is a state that’s very concerned about its way of life,” he told AlterNet. “They see a culture that attacks their basic values and in many cases makes fun of them… I haven’t heard of any documented example of [anti-LGBT] discrimination. But we have a number of documented examples against those who support traditional marriage.”
The religious right is not just circling the wagons and firing in every direction to protect itself from what it sees as a dystopian America; it is also lashing out at longtime targets—abortion—as it seeks to demonstrate it still has clout in conservative states.