When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a right to marriage equality for all on Friday, there was an unexpected undertone to many of the official Republican reactions: relief. They didn’t echo Justice Antonin Scalia’s enraged dissent, which was dripping with contempt for his colleagues (“Today’s decree says that my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court"). Plenty of social conservatives were apocalyptic, especially given the court’s Obamacare decision the day before (Rush Limbaugh despaired "a culture that is under assault and deteriorating rapidly"). But many Republicans quickly moved on to more defensible territory—that if gay marriage is going to be legal, religious conservatives should be shielded from participating in it.
The most striking example came from one of the most far right candidates in the Republican presidential primary, Ben Carson, who said in March that sex in prisons proves being gay is a choice and then, after a huge backlash, said he wouldn’t talk about gay rights anymore. On Friday, Carson’s official statement was mild:
While I strongly disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision, their ruling is now the law of the land.
I call on Congress to make sure deeply held religious views are respected and protected.
The government must never force Christians to violate their religious beliefs. I support same sex civil unions but to me, and millions like me, marriage is a religious service not a government form.
At the opposite end of the GOP presidential spectrum, Jeb Bush, seen as the moderate establishment candidate, said basically the same thing as Carson. He believes in “traditional marriage” but also that we should “love our neighbor and respect others, including those making lifetime commitments.” Bush concluded, “It is now crucial that as a country we protect religious freedom and the right of conscience and also not discriminate.” The New Republic's Madison Johnson rightly notes that the GOP presidential field didn’t praise the decision. But many pivoted like Jeb and Carson. Marco Rubio said, "While I disagree with this decision, we live in a republic and must abide by the law. ... The next president and all in public office must strive to protect the First Amendment rights of religious institutions and millions of Americans whose faiths hold a traditional view of marriage." Lindsey Graham said he is “committing myself to ensuring the protection of religious liberties of all Americans.” Carly Fiorina said “all of our effort should be focused on protecting the religious liberties and freedom of conscience for those Americans that profoundly disagree with today's decision.”
All of this makes sense—the swift movement of Americans toward supporting gay marriage has been clear for years. But that doesn't make it any easier for conservatives who were expecting more of a fight. Erick Erickson, talk radio host and RedState editor, writes, "There were a number of conservatives, particularly evangelicals, who had somehow convinced themselves this day would never come."
This was a tough week for conservatives, and much of the conservative radio and internet was not as ready to move on as GOP politicians. While Obamacare and gay marriage might seem like separate issues, for Limbaugh, they merged. Implicitly referring to Scalia's dissent in King v. Burwell a day earlier, Limbaugh told listeners, "There is a spiritual war going on where truth is no longer truth. There is no objective truth. Everything is relative now. ... Words have no meaning. ... Whatever the most intimidating group of people wants [a word] to mean is what it will mean." He told his listeners that they were "tired of feeling like losers." He believes his views are the majority, while "less than 2 percent of the population is bullying its way through the country and no one is stopping it."
At The American Conservative, Rod Dreher writes, "The warnings of the dissenting justices about the radical challenge to our democracy, and the threats now faced by religious believers, are absolutely chilling — and indeed, prophetic." For Christians, "this is only the beginning of some very dark and difficult days." At RedState.com, Neil Stevens writes, "It’s time for civil disobedience, because they’re coming for the Christians now." The war is everywhere: "And it doesn’t even matter if you live in a sane place now. Kennedy’s ruling was so expansive that the activist radicals now can parade across the country looking for test cases."
One RedState commenter says, "there has never been a seven day stretch before in my life that has ever given me such fear every single day over the future of my country, such pessimism over our ability to right the ship, such distress over the state and functionality of our system and Republic, and such disgust at the force-feeding of their values that the media and the Beltway Elites have imposed on us." That was on a post titled, "Open Thread: Supreme Court discovers right to homosexual marriage in Greyhound station men’s room."
But fear not, GOP. There is a way to channel all this rage and disgust. Leave it to Erick Erickson to weave the together declinist fury with an explicit political calculation:
Republicans can now, however move to more favorable political ground since the Supreme Court has taken this issue off the political table. Most Americans recognize that there must be religious protections in place for people of faith.
The gay rights movement has been mercilessly harassing Christian business owners, driving them from jobs, etc. States and the federal government should protect those business owners.
This will be how the GOP channels opposition to gay rights into a more politically acceptable platform plank. Defending a bakery's decision not to make a gay wedding cake can appease social conservatives while creeping out fewer young people who think homophobia is retrograde. But it's not certain everyone will be pleased. Limbaugh lamented that conservatism has become "not a movement of oppositon but a movement of fine-tuning. ... We fine tune socialism and call it conservatism!"