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Rick Santorum in Iowa. Don't Tell Him He's Losing.

I was at Dordt College in Sioux Center, IA this week for the Iowa Conference on Presidential Politics. This interdisciplinary conference brought together political scientists, historians, and other specialists to present research on the presidency and presidential politics.

The event drew little attention from the media or campaigns, despite the location and timing -- but academics are used to this. Larry Lessig spoke on Thursday night. On Friday, Rick Santorum spent over an hour speaking to a few dozen scholars and a few dozen Dordt students -- not more than 150 in all. This was not his stump speech. Rather, Santorum offered some personal reflections on the experience of running for president and the pros and cons of Iowa's outsized role in the nomination process.

Rather than unleash a stream of 20 tweets containing my reaction to Santorum's presentation, I thought it better to offer a more sustained reflection here for the 3 or 4 of you who might find this beneficial or interesting.

When I was 17, I attended a student leadership conference at an American Baptist college in suburban Philadelphia. One day, the organzers bused our group down to Washington for a tour of the Capitol and other sites. The day included a talk by Pennsylvania's junior U.S. Senator. In a briefing room in one of the Senate office buildings, Rick Santorum spoke to our group about public service, the political process, and the role of faith in politics. To be honest, I don't remember much from that day. But considering how my own interest in religion (which had been perfunctory) and politics (which had been ambivalent) intensified in the years following and continuing throughout my personal and professional life, I can't help but wonder what seeds may have been planted that day in July 1998.

With Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa

With Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa

As my political and religious liberalism intensified dramatically in the mid-2000s, I began to regard Santorum with disdain, taking cues from whatever fahshionable elites I was reading at the time. I'm sure I rolled my eyes at Santorum's book, "It Takes a Family." When sex columnist Dan Savage led the effort to create Santorum's infamous Google problem, I probably thought it more clever than obnoxious.

These years later, however, I have a more balanced view of Santorum. I find his devotion to family, Church, and country admirable even though I still disagree with him about many important issues. I think that, by and large, Santorum has been singled out for criticism unfarily by the cultural left. This is not to say the left shouldn't criticize him. I just don't think it's right that he has become a punchline when his views don't seem to differ markedly from most other Republican polticians.

I am also intrigued by the theme of his 2014 book, Blue Collar Conservatives. My interest is less in how the GOP can do more for working class whites than in how Santorum's faith could influence his politics. The idea of the book shows a desire on Santorum's part to do something politically beneficial. But the timid policy proscripions and the failure of the book to change the conversation (let alone its author) reveals, at least in my view, a missed opportunity for religious conservatives in politics to show a little more respect for (or at least a little less disdain for) the broad ecumenical Christian perspective on economics. (For instance, Satnroum favors a modest minimum wage increase, but he seems opposed to changing or even challenging the way the the state and the market distribute the wealth and income our economy creates.)

In the Q & A at Dordt College yesterday, I enjoyed hearing Santorum give unscripted and thoughtful comments on number of issues.

On the subject of America's global leadership, Santorum echoed familiar conservative themes. He is very worried about radical Islam, of course. But he said little that would endear him to Muslims in this country or anywhere else. I can't give exact quotations, but it was stuff like, The West has been fighting radical Islam for a thousand years... Mohammed's kingdom was political and Jesus' was not... Etc. His foreign policy comments were not particularly novel or interesting, in my view.

On the subject of immigration, Santroum gave one of the more thoughtful and coherent defenses of the nativist view. It was a mostly ecominc argument, stressing that our economy and society should use immigration stragetically so that citizens and a proper number of newcomers have the best shot at prosperity. Santorum claimed that the United States will receive 100 million immigrants by 2050 and suggested that the dynamics of our economy, social welfare programs, and workforce participaion rates may struggle to function at optimal levels.

One young man asked Santorum about Pope Francis. I was interestd to hear his answer, because I found that after a brief flirtation with expressing strong disagreement or disapproval with the pope, Republican presidential candidates have realized that it is unhelpful to critize someone with such moral authority. And while the conservative media continues to publish some breathtaking attacks against Pope Francis that evidently generate a lot of clicks and pageviews among the kinds of people who will vote in GOP primaries, candidates and elected officials themselves do not attack the pope as fiercely. Santorum expressed appreciation for the way Pope Francis has connected with people who are not religious or who have abandoned faith or the church. He said that, while he was initially taken aback by some of the things the pope said, he now realizes that A) the context of Francis' remarks are not always presented well in the media and B) the pope is speaking to various audiences with different kinds of speech and rhetoric. Santorum said he disagrees with some of the pope's policy proposals, of course, but I found his overall attitude toward the pope to be fairly respectful and appropriate for a Republican Catholic politican -- or any politican, for that matter.

Santorum complained that the media only gives softball questions to Democrats. So I asked him the softball question of the day: "Mr. Santorum," I said. "You served two full terms before running for president. But they say that every senator looks in the mirror and sees a president. Given the experience of Obama, Cruz, Paul, and Rubio, what do you think of politicians using the Senate as nothing more than a platform for their presidential ambitions?" I really set him up to slam Rubio, but Santorum demurred. Only a few senators are running, he said. But then he reflected further. In his second term, he said, people began to talk to him about running for president. "I was in my 40s. It was flattering, but on some level I still didn't feel ready." Without signaling out Rubio or Cruz for specific criticism, Santorum did go on to say that we should prefer a president with more experience and wisdom than young, ambitious, celebrity-politicans typically possess.

I would have liked to ask Santorum about how his faith influences his economic views. After the Georgetown Jesuits slammed Paul Ryan in 2012 for his claim that GOP budget priorities align well with Catholic social teaching, something quite remarkable happened. Ryan took the critcism to heart, met with Catholic leaders, disavowed his erstwhile Ayn Rand discipleship, and genuinely tried to learn more about Catholic social teaching. Now, this does not mean Ryan changed his positions on any key issues. But it does indicate that he has a teachable spirit and a sincere willingness to at least hear his critics, particularly when they argue from his own faith tradition. Santorum, as far as I know, has not responded in the same way to that kind of criticism.

Overall, though, I find Santorum to be a compelling figure. He finished a fairly strong second in the 2012 nominating contest. I don't fully understand why he is not a more desirable candidate for conservatvie Republicans. And, while his prospects do not look promising at this point, I would not underestimate him. He seems to genuinely enjoy retail-politics campaigning, and money matters less in Iowa than in most other places. If he is still in the race on caucus night, I expect him to receive more support than his polling numbers reflect.

Ever the optimist, Santorum pointed out that many Iowa caucus goers do not make up their minds until the last moment. "I don't care if I'm not your first choice," he said. "As long as I'm your last choice."

Santorum 2016: Right Message, Wrong Messenger?

By all usual metrics, Rick Santorum should be well positioned to compete for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Yet as the former Pennsylvania senator and 2012 runner-up announced his candidacy last week, his chances seem remote.

It would be a mistake to write him off. When the last election cycle begin, Santorum was an unknown candidate with a Google problem. He went on to win 11 primaries and caucuses.

Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) announcing his candidacy for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination May 27, 2015 in Cabot, PA. Photo:  AARON JOSEFCZYK,  REUTERS

Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) announcing his candidacy for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination May 27, 2015 in Cabot, PA. Photo: AARON JOSEFCZYK,  REUTERS

Throughout 2011, Santorum struggled to gain traction. A series of other conservatives catapulted ahead in the polls, only to fade from the race amid gaffes (Rick Perry), scandals (Herman Cain), and general cluelessness (Michele Bachmann). Backed by billionaire financier Foster Freiss, Santorum held his own in debates and built a robust organization in Iowa.

After Santorum’s surprise win in the Iowa caucuses, a group of religious right leaders convened at a Texas activist's ranch to consolidate their support behind one candidate in hopes that social conservatives' unity could thwart the allegedly moderate Mitt Romney in his path to the nomination.

Santorum received the religious right's nod over Newt Gingrich and Perry. But Gingrich won the South Carolina primary and Romney secured the nomination.

If history is any guide, Santorum should expect significant support this time around. As he is fond of pointing out, every GOP nominee meets one of three tests. "One, they were vice president. Two, they were the son of a former president. And three, they came in second place the last time and ran again and won." 

Yet Santorum has a different image and appeal than past nominees who received the nod on their second attempt. He was a grassroots favorite, whereas Mitt Romney, John McCain, and Bob Dole were establishment figures.

Santorum has not held elected office since he lost his bid for a third Senate term in 2006. But he has won twice as many statewide elections as Mitt Romney. Santorum also has three times as much Senate experience as Marco Rubio and Rand Paul (not to mention Barack Obama), and six times more experience than Ted Cruz. Sure, Santorum's foreign policy qualifications are thin, but that hardly hurts him in a field filled with national security novices.

Santorum may have spent the past 8 years as a politician without an office, but he has continually honed his message. His 2014 book, Blue Collar Conservatives, chides the GOP for doing so little to help working people. Against conservative orthodoxy, Santorum now supports a small increase in the minimum wage. He peppers his speeches with rhetoric about how Republicans sound like all they care about is giving rich people a tax cut. (Though there is plenty of doubt about whether Santorum’s policies would actually help struggling families.)

His belief that marriage is between a man and a woman is well known. While frontrunners Jeb Bush and Scott Walker have faced questions about their social conservative bona fides, Santorum's are impeccable. His new economic populism, however modest, sets him apart from his rivals. The rest of his appeal has plenty of red meat for the anti-abortion, anti-Obamacare, and anti-immigrant factions of the party.

A devout Catholic and father of seven, Santorum and his family often attend Latin Mass at their Northern Virginia parish. Santorum agrees with the Church on abortion and marriage. But like any good Republican, he opposes Pope Francis on a wide range of non-sex-related issues. Santorum’s populist economic rhetoric may make him the least bad of the bad Catholics in the race.

In a field crowded with polished candidates in addition to the presidential-campaign-as-FOX-News-audition tier, the GOP seems content to pass on Santorum.

Yet a party the public thinks cares mostly about rich people’s interests should think twice before ignoring the only candidate with a populist economic agenda.

In 2012, Rick Santorum had to wait for other candidates to falter in order to make his rise. He may not be so lucky this time. But with Foster Friess’s millions and an unshakeable belief in his message, Santorum may stay in the race long enough to be a factor once again.

Quick Thoughts on Political Polarization and the Catholic Church

Today and tomorrow at the University of Notre Dame, an ideologically diverse group of Catholic leaders is gathering to discuss how political polarization affects the Catholic life in the United States. Under the theme, "Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal," the conference has the potential to start conversations, improve thinking, and change the tone of political engagement by laypeople, priests, and religious.

Though I am not Catholic, I am increasingly convinced that, compared with secular political ideologies and other churches' political teachings, the Catholic Church's social teaching is the most comprehensively and authentically "Christian" ethic, and the one most oriented to the common good. The Catholic Church is at the heart of ecumenical Christian consensus on political issues.

Other ethical systems are much more bound to specific eras, locations, and political or economic frameworks. Yet Catholics, like all Americans, experience the effects of ideological and partisan polarization. It's too simplistic to naively hope that a Christian Democrat party will magically emerge in the United States. (Would today's partisan Catholics support a "Catholic" party even if one existed?)

Our two-party system is a reality that is unlikely to change any time soon. Party loyalty is strong, usually fixed by early adulthood and relatively stable across the life span. Partisanship is much more strongly correlated with ideology than with ethno-religious identity, as in the past. Catholics must figure out how to be faithful citizens in a partisan framework that challenges them more acutely than it challenges many other religious adherents.

Conservative evangelicals can be faithful Republicans because their churches affirm social/sexual conservatism but are mostly weak (if not silent) on matters of economics, deferring to markets and accepting (if not outright sanctifying) the way The Market distributes resources in society. Mainline Protestant denominations' political teachings line up neatly with the Democratic Party's platform across a range of issues.

Orthodox Christians, black Protestants, and moderate evangelical traditions also cut across the two major parties. But since the Catholic Church is the largest and most universal, I am especially interested in how the Notre Dame conference shapes Christian engagement with the realities of partisan and ideological polarization in the Church.

I am not very proficient at Storify, twitter essays, or even blogging, but here are some preliminary thoughts.

I may not have the opportunity to write more about the #UnaEcclesia conference. But I send my best wishes to all who participate. I look forward to studying and discussing how Catholics embrace (and challenge) partisanship.

Observations on the ERLC Conference

A number of people, including friends and foes of Southern Baptists, appreciated my blog post Monday night reflecting on the first day of this week's ERLC National Conference.

Thursday, I published a commentary for Religion News Service. But I thought I might share some observations from the conference that I was not able to fit in my column.

I watched many of the sessions via live-stream, and intend to go back and watch more of them. I believe this conference is important because it self-consciously seeks to set the tone for conservative evangelical teaching and witness on human sexuality in a rapidly changing (and, in many ways, objectively deteriorating, public moral climate).

Here are a few observations.

-Non-gay Issues. Some twitter commentary represented the ERLC Conference as a three-day gay-bashing confab. That is simply not true. There was talk about marital strength generally and pastors' marital health specifically. There was talk about the devastating effects of pornography generally and specifically for pastors. Panelists talked about cohabitation, divorce, intimacy in marriage, and other issues. The Rev. Dr. Albert Mohler even said that no-fault divorce threatens the family more than gay marriage ever will. 

-Tone. Some are noting a somewhat more gracious tone. Not just a lack of "ick factor" and crude, dismissive "Adam-and-Steve" rhetoric, but a sincere desire to engage, to acknowledge that sexual orientation is a thing and that gays are not choosing to be hardwired toward vile sin. And they quite explicitly condemned persecution regimes (including criminalization) in some developing nations. And they said gay homelessness among youth is a big problem and that parents should not shun their gay children. The Rev. Dr. Russell Moore explicitly rejected conversion therapy as counterproductive. Even so, some speakers' presentations and other speakers' life stories seem to reflect the idea that orientation can change.

-New Ideal Types. Substantively, the conference was largely the same ol' people saying the same ol' things. (I'm not saying this is good or bad – just a factual observation.) But they had two new-ish voices: Dr. Rosaria Butterfield and the Rev. Sam Allberry. Butterfield is a former lesbian atheist feminist English professor who was writing an anti-Christian right book and eventually got saved, later became a Reformed pastor's wife. She is being touted by the ERLC/TGC crowd quite prominently ever since she published her conversion story in Christianity Today. She's a kind and gracious woman who talks about how she learned hospitality and community among gay people. She says unbelief was her greater sin, not serially monogamous lesbian relationships. Sam Allberry is a Church of England pastor who is living as a celibate gay man. Perhaps because they rejected not only same-sex erotic expression, but also liberal church and social institutions, these two are being held out as the choicest new converts to the traditional/orthodox view.

-Youth/Demographics. A PRRI report published in February said that 43% of evangelicals 18-34 support SSM. But that's just self-identified evangelicals or people who self identify with an evangelical-denomination or tradition. That level of evangelical support is probably overstated. Mark Regnerus's data has only 11% of 18-39 year old evangelicals supporting SSM. His definition of "evangelical" includes people who both a) self-identify as evangelical and b) attend worship regularly. So basically, the conservative traditions and churches are holding the line on homosexuality pretty well if you do not count infrequent attenders or nominal identifiers. At the elite level, there are strong incentives to toe the party line, as Rich Stearns and other leaders have discovered. The ERLC conference crowd was pretty young, and so were a lot of the speakers. So there's always the question of how long they can sustain their opposition in face of strong cultural pressures and, increasingly, personal and familial relationships, that might lead them to change.

-Reception Outside the ERLC Conference Hall. It was pretty brutal. Justin Lee of the Gay Christian Network tried very hard to be conciliatory, but basically the same ol' people had the same 'ol reactions: That in spite of a deliberate tone that was as conciliatory as the ERLC thinks it can be, gay people are not buying it. Gays still blame these attitudes for gay youth homeless, gay youth suicides, gays ending up depressed and addicted, etc. Might it actually be better for gays if conservative evangelicals just kicked them out and told them to stay away? People will wonder if it might be more psychologically and spiritually harmful for a gay person to endure what the church wants for them than to just stay away and either a) find an affirming church or b) quit religion altogether. This is obviously a very controversial question. But it can be a matter of life and death.

-Effects of Tone Changes. I really think that some of the tone shifts may unwittingly be setting up rank and file evangelicals and some leaders to rethink their positions. As the PRRI (and other) data show, proximity and engagement with LGBT people leads toward acceptance. Lack of proximity helps maintain rejection. If parents let their gay kids stick around, if evangelicals fight for basic civil rights (such as opposing criminalization of homosexuality and blatant discrimination laws), if they befriend gays without an agenda to convert them, if they accept that sexual orientation is innate and not a choice -- then don't many people eventually end up accepting non-celibate gay people? If evangelicals do all these things, then the exegetical leap with regard to a few Bible verses may not be so great after all.

-Politics. Did conference speakers and panelists advocate for religious exemptions and conscience protections? Of course. But I heard nothing implicitly or explicitly suggesting that voting for the Republican ticket in next week's election is going to strengthen the church, the moral fiber of America, or the precarious state of the American family. (I did not watch the entire thing. Maybe I missed something.) This is a significant change. I cannot image a similar ERLC event 20, 10, or even 2 years ago lacking any blatant electioneering or partisan cheerleading a week before a federal election.

Political science research shows that ideology is often a core part of social identity, especially for elites. It takes restraint to eschew partisanship. Democratic and Republican pastors and lay leaders struggle mightily with this tension. No politicians were invited speakers, which was a conscious decision because there are, in fact, politicians who might speak credibly on these issues from a faith perspective as public servants. I am almost certain that the ERLC Conference speaker lineup was unanimously Republican. But, to their credit, whether you agree or disagree with them you have to concede that they do have a higher loyalty than party.

Coincidentally, the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right think tank, held a half-day conference Tuesday morning on economic issues causing and stemming from the breakdown of the family. AEI's proposals are still conservative, but AEI promotes policies that the ERLC and other sensible Christian right groups will end up supporting. There needs to be an acknowledgement that divorce doesn't just happen because people are sinners. There are strong economic forces at play. And frankly, neither the Catholic Church nor Protestants should be okay with the fact that marriage is becoming a luxury good and divorce a plague on the poor. I believe we need more robust economic supports than AEI or reform conservatives are proposing, but I also believe that we need to emphasize virtue and commitment and intact families more than the Left is usually comfortable talking about.

-Conclusion. I offer these reflections in the spirit of fair-mindedness and dialog. I have, at times, publicly and stridently opposed various aspects of Southern Baptist theology and institutional life. But I count many Baptists – clergy and lay, elite and rank-and-file – among my family and friends. I think the approach embodied at the ERLC Conference is intriguing, and I look forward to analyzing Southern Baptists' and other Christians' future debates and engagement on these vital issues.

Ted Cruz – America's JV Team Captain

Against the backdrop of the United States government’s preparations to use military force against the “Islamic State” (ISIS), a diverse group of Christian leaders from around the world gathered in Washington last week. Patriarchs of many Christian communions in the Middle East met with religious leaders and policymakers united in their concern about the rising tide of persecution and violence against some of the world’s most ancient Christian communities.

The sponsoring organization, In Defense of Christians, planned the event months ago. As this awful summer brought images and stories of ISIS’s atrocities to Americans’ screens, our collective conscience seems to be awakening. Even Pope Francis underscored that it is licit to stop unjust aggressors. Coincidentally, this week’s summit took place as President Barack Obama and Members of Congress consider a counterterrorism strategy against ISIS.

For two full days, the In Defense of Christians summit was accomplishing its stated goals. Leaders prayed, strategized, raised awareness, and advocated for religious freedom. There were some disagreements, of course. Not all want to use military action to stop ISIS. But the summit was, by all accounts, going very well.

Then, Wednesday night, just an hour before President Obama’s speech to the nation, Sen. Ted Cruz addressed the summit. Billed as the keynote speaker, Cruz spoke extemporaneously for a few wandering moments. He listed organizations as disparate as Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, and ISIS, and seemed proud to not understand the differences between them.

Cruz then told his audience, which included a number of Arab Christians, “Christians have no greater ally than Israel.” When some in the room booed, Cruz told the senior clerics that they hated America and that they hated Jews. Sen. Cruz said that if these holy men think differently on Israel, they are “consumed with hate” and “do not reflect the teachings of Christ.” Before leaving the stage, Cruz gave his parting blow: “If you do not stand with Israel and with the Jews, then I do not stand with you.”

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz

In Defense of Christians issued a press release chiding “politically motivated opportunists” for disrupting the gala dinner.

But the culprit here is Ted Cruz. He is the politically motivated opportunist, and this breach of Washington decorum and its aftermath is revealing. The very worst things about our politics, our religion, and our media enabled Ted Cruz’s rise and sustain his ability to grandstand and imperil not only the functioning of our government, but apparently also sensitive foreign policy matters and fragile ecumenical Christian commitments.

Not content in his role as Tea Party champion and, at key moments, de facto Speaker of the House, Sen. Cruz seems hell-bent on making sure his rigid ideology trumps the dogged, determined work of countless other public officials who are trying to compromise and govern in a difficult political climate.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict figures prominently in our foreign policy and our domestic politics. We have compelling strategic and moral reasons to support Israel in its struggle for peace and security. That support is unwavering.

It is good to support our allies. But politically, the Israel lobby has created a situation in which American politics becomes a contest over which pro-Israel politicians are the most pro-Israel. Politicians flock to the America Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual policy conference to swear their fealty to Israel. Many U.S. politicians’ Israel commitments have grown from merely unwavering to uncritical and even unconditional.

One could be forgiven for thinking Cruz mistakenly thought he was addressing AIPAC Wednesday night. But his invocation of Israel was probably deliberate. Disregarding Middle Eastern Christians’ concerns was a small price for Cruz to pay to score a few more points with a foreign country that has, in fact, at times made life difficult for Palestinian Christians. Surely the first-term senator from Texas knows better than senior prelates from the region.

Cruz’s office later said that he was not warned against dragging Israel politics into the event and that if he had been, he simply would not have graced the event with his presence.

In addition to insulting Christian leaders gathered to deal with serious issues of persecution and violence, Cruz reinforced an absurd dichotomy that supposes anyone who does not unconditionally support Israel hates America, Israel, and Jews.

There is a strand in American evangelicalism that celebrates black-and-white distinctions and nurtures “us-versus-them” thinking. But Cruz’s comments also speak to broader issues in American Christianity that make global engagement difficult. In bringing his AIPAC speech to the Christian event, Cruz simply replaced the stock “America has no greater ally than Israel” with “Christians have no greater ally than Israel.”

Using “Christian” and “America” interchangeably is a profound political and theological error with far-reaching consequences. American Catholics and Orthodox tend to understand their place in a universal church in ways American Protestants often do not. Liberal U.S. Protestants stand quite apart from most of the world’s Christians on abortion and homosexuality, for instance. But American evangelicals should be aware of how their hyper-individual, free-market faith is a significant departure from ecumenical consensus on many issues not related to human sexuality.

As many are learning, Christians around the world are much less reflexively and uncritically pro-Israel than their American brethren. Israel has benefitted from U.S. evangelicals’ largely unrequited love of Jews, a bizarre fetishization that assumes Israel has a geopolitical role to play in an eschatological drama culminating in Jesus appearing in the sky on a white horse. This is why conservative Christian support for Israel is so high.

Cruz may believe all this. He certainly would not be alone. But to denounce the spiritual leaders of ISIS’s Christian victims as unchristian Jew-haters is beyond the pale.

President Obama underestimated ISIS, comparing non-state agitators in the Middle East to a JV team. Perhaps here at home, we should think of freshman Senators as JV team instead of a short hop to the presidency. The Democratic Party passed over more qualified candidates in 2008, and, inexplicably, many Republicans seem eager to send one of several ambitious Senate freshmen to the White House in 2016. Ted Cruz has shown himself to be a capable politician. But after his most recent stunt, it is obvious that Cruz’s aptitude as a statesman is perilously low.

Should Anti-SSM Views Disqualify Judicial Nominees?

In my previous post, I told the stories of President Richard Nixon's two failed Supreme Court nominees. Most Gen Xers and Millennials who know Robert Bork and Harriet Miers have never heard of Clement Haynsworth or Harrold Carswell. In 1969 and 1970, these Nixon nominees were rejected in part due to their past support for segregation. Carswell had expressed white supremacist views, while Haynsworth was merely ambivalent (to put it charitably) on civil rights at a crucial time.

A majority of Americans now supports same sex marriage. That majority will grow in the years to come as SSM becomes a legal and political reality in every state. The question is how the majority will regard the minority that continues to believe that marriage is exclusively and by nature between a man and a woman. Ascendant gay rights advocates, bullied and belittled for so long, are now largely of the view that opposition to the movement is not merely a matter of disagreement, but a bigoted moral failing unbecoming of modern men and women.

What will this mean for traditionalists who want to serve in positions of public trust and responsibility?

Is Opposition to Same Sex Marriage Equivalent to Support for Racial Segregation?

Hon. Michael Boggs (Photo credit:  Atlanta Journal-Constitution )

Hon. Michael Boggs (Photo credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Even now, one of President Obama's judicial nominees faces defeat as Democratic senators and interest groups pledge to reject him. Obama nominated Georgia state court judge Michael Boggs to a lifetime post as federal judge. In a Judiciary Committee hearing, Boggs recanted his past support for a law favored by abortion rights opponents. With respect to same sex marriage, Boggs said, "My position may or may not have changed on that over the last decade." Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal, Al Franken, and others have said they will oppose Boggs if he comes up for a vote. Senate Democratic leaders are all opposed, meaning Washington is basically waiting for Boggs to withdraw. Evidently, he is rather tenacious. Note that Boggs is a Democrat nominated by a Democratic president and faces votes on a committee and in a chamber that Democrats control.

Just as pro-choice groups have made it virtually impossible for pro-life Democrats to be nominated for judgeships, it seems we have reached the point where support for same sex marriage is so unanimous among Democratic Party leaders and interest groups that Senate Democrats are unlikely to ever again confirm a Democratic judicial nominee who opposes SSM (or offers anything less than enthusiastic support).

What will happen when a Republican president makes judicial nominations? The answer will depend on what party controls the Senate and whether the GOP retakes the White House in 2017 or 2021. By that time, there will be no Senate Democrats who oppose SSM and a growing number of Republican senators who support it.

If even one or two Judiciary Committee Republicans side with the Democrats in rejecting anti-SSM nominees, then the question is essentially moot: We will never again have judges confirmed to the federal bench who do not endorse SSM. To avoid the impasse, a Republican president will simply choose from the fast-growing field of Republican judges who support same sex marriage. Though it will enrage the religious right, it may be be better and safer politics, even for Republican presidents, to avoid nominating anti-SSM judges. Traditionalist nominees can insist in their confirmation hearings that they will uphold the law, but will this be enough?

Should Anti-SSM Views Disqualify People from Public Life?

The parallel to Nixon's failed SCOTUS nominations is clear but imperfect. The operative question is this: Is opposition to same sex marriage now (or soon) as blatantly wrong and politically toxic as support for racial segregation had become by the 1970s?

Though I usually find myself on the liberal side of culture war issues (read: sex issues), I do not insist that everyone who disagrees with me should be shunned and shamed out of public life. Lately I have though deeply about Damon Linker's columns at The Week on the Hobby Lobby decisionliberalism's intolerance, and related subjects. The essence of his argument is that liberals should endorse a robust civic pluralism that makes room for conservatives who hold traditional positions on sexuality issues. I agree. I do not think that people who believe marriage is by its nature between a man and a woman – a group that includes many friends, most of the people who nurtured in in my formative years, and my own self for more than half of my lifetime – are moral monsters who must be silenced and relegated to the margins of society.

How Can SSM Opponents Survive in Public Life?

If people who oppose same sex marriage want to have even a fighting chance of being a respected minority rather than a rightly despised one, I suggest they carefully examine the rest of their positions on an array of issues. If you oppose SSM and you oppose all or most other civil rights protections for people who are gay, your enmity is well deserved. If you oppose civil rights for people who are gay and for other minority groups, maybe you are just a bigot after all.

The best hope for people who oppose SSM is to be robust supporters of civil rights in every arena. That way, they can credibly claim their minority view is legitimately based on their understanding of the nature of marriage and is not just one among many retrograde or pro-privilege views. (This is why I have argued that Southern Baptists and other white evangelicals should vigorously oppose voter suppression laws.) Conservative Protestants note (often with dismay) that the Catholic Church has more social credibility in spite of its traditional views on sex. Maybe this has something to do with the breadth of the Catholic commitment to justice, compassion, and dignity. The religious right must do more than point to the Tea Party agenda and proclaim, "Thus saith the Lord."

By the 1970s, acquiescence to segregation became a political liability in most areas. A few white politicians with checkered histories on race survived, but overt racism was no longer a viable position. We seem to be headed in the same direction with respect to acceptance of homosexuality. Still, progressives should think twice about the limits of their tolerance. And traditionalists should look beyond their defense of marriage and examine the totality of their public witness.