The Fall 2002 issue of The Public Eye magazine featured an article by R. Claire Snyder, titled “The Christian Right’s ‘Defense of Marriage:’ Democratic Rhetoric, Antidemocratic Politics”. The piece explores how the anti-LGBT and anti-feminist ideology on the Right intersects with their ostensibly democratic rhetoric, and moreover how their ideologies serve a vision of a Christian nation designed to deny rights to minorities.
Snyder cites the populist appeals of the Far Right as integral to their strategy, masking an anti-democratic agenda. She notes the idea of a liberal democracy, in which secular government acts to protect the civil rights and liberties of individuals rather than imposing a particular vision of civil society on citizens, as something that is continually distorted by the Right to favor a conservative, Christian vision of the United States.
Specifically, Snyder explores how equal rights for LGBTQ citizens are endangered by this agenda. “Assuming a populist pose,” she says, “the Christian Right claims to speak for the interests of ordinary people who are supposedly being attacked by an ‘elite’ homosexual lobby.” Today, in the face of approximately 52 percent support for marriage equality in all 50 states, the Right continues to cite populist support in their endeavors.
In the article, Snyder cites the introduction of the Federal Marriage Amendment by the group Alliance for Marriage as one among many of the Christian Right’s populist gambits. Alliance for Marriage (AFM) claimed the Amendment was “designed to protect both marriage and democracy in the United States by preserving the legal status of marriage from court redefinition.” AFM goes on to imply the allegedly populist nature of this legislation, claiming they are preserving marriage “[b]y returning the debate over marriage to the American people.” The amendment lost momentum in 2006, but was reintroduced as recently as 2013 by Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R, Kansas) in response to the recent Supreme Court decision United States v. Windsor, which overturned the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
We see echoes of this sort of “empowerment” the AFM promises in the Tea Party. The Tea Party has become a platform for conservative populist discontent. To the extent one can pin down the ideological underpinnings of the Tea Party, the appellation goes along with an overarching narrative of impending tyranny. Tea Party members, in concert with the Christian Right, are quick to victimize their constituency, who are supposedly living under an alien system of values.
Snyder ties the Christian Right’s feeling of victimization, especially as it relates to civil rights for LGBTQ people, as stemming in part from the deeply held belief that the United States is, at its core, a Christian nation. As Snyder points out, though, the U.S. Constitution created a secular government that would not discriminate against anyone based on religion. And moreover, the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of a state religion by the government.
This “under attack” posturing has only increased since 2002, although with a subtle evolution. Religious conservatives, sensing a decline in alarm over same-sex marriage in recent years, are now claiming the debate over homosexuality has prompted attacks on religious freedom. They hope that by fabricating this new imagined threat to religious beliefs, it will reconnect them with religious voters who no longer care whether or not a same-sex couples have the ability to get married.
In July of 2013, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) alleged that Christians would soon be charged with hate crimes for speaking against homosexuality, mimicking the panic of many of his colleagues. Commenting on the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision, Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, has said, “Advocates of gay marriage now seek to redefine not only marriage, but the relationship between Judeo-Christian values and the American tradition…Just what will be left to ‘conserve’ of the American tradition?”
This “American tradition” that people such as Brian Brown wish to conserve, Snyder imagines, is the traditional gender roles of American society. “The Christian Right,” she says, “seeks to reconsolidate male dominance and reestablish the patriarchal family as the dominant family form in the United States.” Marriage equality undermines the traditional patriarchal institution of marriage. Consider this quote from Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-VA), when he introduced the Parental Title Protection Act of 2011: “Referring to parents as ‘Parent 1’ or ‘Parent 2’ on official government documents is a bureaucratic attempt to redefine traditional parent roles. These subtle, but nonetheless significant, changes undermine the traditional American family relationships that have served as the bedrock of this nation since its inception.”
Forbes’ sentiments pose as much a threat to women’s rights as they do to LGBTQ rights and Snyder does not shy away from this in her article, noting that the Christian version of heterosexual marriage directly relates to its understanding of gender difference, and that the Christian Right often justifies this by privileging certain passages in the Bible. For example, they often favor the decidedly more gendered second version of Genesis over the more egalitarian first version, both contained within the Bible.
The populist argument the Christian Right makes is fraught, to say the least. Snyder explains their logic by pointing to the way the Christian Right emphasizes the sovereignty of states legislatures only when it serves their interests, while otherwise opposing the decisions of the people’s elected representatives—often in the name of the people. Regarding the then-impending DOMA decision in the summer of 2013, Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-TX) stated, “States have been able to determine how they want to treat gay marriage in their states…Now the Supreme Court may rule those laws are invalid…To me, the people spoke on that issue.” Here, within the same passage Neugebauer invokes the state insofar as it complies with his view, then the people accordingly.
Some conservatives have even cited a confused populace as the reason for a lack of support for populist sentiments in the United States. Peter LaBarbera of Americans For the Truth About Homosexuality has said of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), legislation supported by 68 percent of the U.S. population, “If people truly understood, the real freedom-robbing results of this legislation, it would have nowhere near as much support.” This notion of latent populist support for the Christian Right’s platform, support that only demands continued advocacy on their part, will continue to motivate people on the Right to fight for issues like marriage equality. Snyder’s thesis still holds today, as the Right continues to espouse antidemocratic ideologies masked with democratic rhetoric to promote their reductive view of a Christian nation.