How Republicans Can Still Make Gay Marriage a Winning Issue

Liberals won the legal ruling, but conservatives can still define what marriage means.

Anti-Gay protesters

Conservatives who lost on gay marriage, like those holding anti-gay placards in front of the White House on April 26, 2015, shouldn’t get mad. They should get wise.

Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

For two weeks, Republicans have been moaning about Obergefell v. Hodges, the June 26 Supreme Court decision that declared gay marriage a constitutional right. Even presidential candidates who claim to represent the party’s next generation are pledging to continue the fight. Sen. Marco Rubio says marriage “should be between one man and one woman.” Gov. Scott Walker wants a constitutional amendment to overturn the court’s ruling. Sen. Ted Cruz says Republicans should campaign against the court, because its decision is “radically out of step with public opinion.”

These men are leading the GOP in the wrong direction. There’s a simpler, saner way for Republicans to regain their footing on social issues. Go back to being the party of lifestyle conservatism: marriage, parenthood, community, faith, commitment, self-discipline, and social order. Recognize same-sex marriage as part of that tradition. Now that the fight for “marriage equality” has been won, the next fight is about what that victory means. Are we welcoming same-sex couples, like different-race couples, to an enduring institution? Or are we rethinking the rules of marriage and its place in society? That’s a debate to which social conservatives should contribute. And it’s a fight the GOP can win.

Republicans are right to worry about redefining marriage. But their decision to draw the line at sexual orientation was a profound mistake. They thought homosexuality was a lifestyle. In reality, the only lifestyle at stake is marriage itself. By locking gay people out of that institution, Republicans disserved their party’s mission: a well-ordered society. And by asserting that there was no logical stopping point between homosexuality, polygamy, and infidelity, the right helped the left. Today Republicans find themselves in a de facto alliance with people who want to eliminate all discrimination among family structures. Some social liberals are claiming that if you support marriage equality for same-sex couples, you have to support it for multiple partners as well. Some right-wing groups agree. Both sides want to make Americans choose between lifestyle liberalism and rolling back gay marriage.

That’s where a younger, wiser generation of Republicans needs to step in. They must break the link between same-sex marriage and lifestyle liberalism. Not all family structures are equal. Divorce, single parenthood, and promiscuity are real problems. So is the replacement of marriage by cohabitation or domestic partnership. To be heard on those issues, Republicans have to build a middle ground in which Obergefell is welcomed and understood, not as a gateway to equal recognition and benefits regardless of how you live, but as an affirmation of marriage.

In the short term, this will be hard. Republicans will have to admit that they were wrong. But in exchange, they’ll be freed to fight for their values. And whatever support they lose on the right will be offset by a fresh appeal to the center. The public is ready for this message. That’s the silver lining in the GOP’s defeat on gay marriage: The fact that Republicans misunderstood the issue means that they never lost what was important. Americans didn’t sign up for lifestyle liberalism or for dissolving the meaning of matrimony. If you study polls, you’ll see what really happened: People embraced same-sex marriage not because they saw homosexuality as a matter of personal choice, but because they didn’t.

In 2004, 37 percent of respondents in a Gallup poll said homosexuality was “something a person is born with.” Forty-one percent said it was “due to factors such as upbringing and environment.” Since then, the numbers have reversed. Two months ago, 51 percent of respondents told Gallup that gay or lesbian orientation was inborn; only 30 percent attributed it to upbringing or environment. If you focus on the set of respondents in Gallup’s samples who say that homosexuality is environmentally influenced, you’ll find that they’re more sympathetic to gay marriage, on average, than they were 11 years ago. But you’ll also find that the percentage of Americans who think homosexuality is environmentally influenced, and who nonetheless support gay marriage, has increased by only 1 point. By contrast, the percentage of Americans who think homosexuality is inborn, and who also support gay marriage, has increased by 20 points.

Gallup’s question isn’t ideal, because people who attribute homosexuality to “upbringing and environment” don’t necessarily think it’s immutable. The Pew Research Center has a question that nails this down: “Do you think a gay or lesbian person’s sexual orientation can be changed or cannot be changed?” In 2003, Pew’s respondents were evenly divided on this question. Since then, the numbers have diverged. In surveys taken in 2006, 2012, and 2015, the percentage who said orientation could be changed steadily declined, from 42 to 39 to 36 to 33. Meanwhile, the percentage who said orientation couldn’t be changed steadily grew, from 42 to 49 to 51 to 60. Support for same-sex marriage has risen in both categories. But overall, the percentage of Americans who think homosexuality can be changed, and who support gay marriage, is only 3 points higher than it was in 2003. The remainder of the national increase in support for gay marriage—more than 23 percentage points—is attributable to people who think homosexuality can’t be changed.

The best way to get at lifestyle liberalism is to ask about homosexuality as a choice. The only survey I’ve found that has posed this question consistently over time is the ABC News/Washington Post poll. In 1994 the poll asked: “Do you think being homosexual is something that people choose to be, or do you think it’s just the way they are?” From 1994 to 2004 to 2014, the percentage of respondents who said homosexuality was a choice fell from 40 to 33 to 25. Meanwhile, the percentage who said it was “just the way they are” rose from 49 to 57 to 65. In these surveys, people who say homosexuality is a choice are no more supportive of gay marriage today than they were two decades ago. In 1994, 25 percent of these respondents said “homosexuals should … have equal rights to marry one another.” In 2014, only 23 percent said yes to a more sympathetic version of the question: “allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally.” Overall, the percentage of ABC/Post respondents who think homosexuality is a choice and endorse same-sex marriage is 4 points lower than it was in 1994.

Together, these polls make a strong case that lifestyle liberalism has not driven the massive surge in public support for gay marriage. Instead, many Americans have decided that homosexuality is an immutable trait, and they have adjusted their views accordingly. If homosexuality isn’t a choice, it can’t be a sin. We can’t make gay people straight, but we can let them marry.

That doesn’t mean lifestyle liberalism hasn’t been spreading. It has. If you look at Gallup’s table of attitudes on moral acceptability over the last 14 years, you’ll see a 16-point increase in acceptance of “having a baby outside of marriage,” a 15-point increase for “sex between an unmarried man and woman,” a 12-point increase for divorce, and a 9-point increase for polygamy. But nothing matches the 23-point increase on “gay or lesbian relations” or the 25-point increase on same-sex marriage. To find a question on which the public has moved as dramatically as it has on same-sex marriage, you have to scroll down the page to this one: “Do you approve or disapprove of marriage between blacks and whites?” On that question, public support has risen by 22 points since 2002. The magnitude of the shift on gay marriage mirrors the magnitude of the shift on interracial marriage, perhaps because Americans are coming to believe that sexual orientation is more like the color of your skin than like the content of your character.

I’m not a big fan of using the government to reward or punish sexual behavior. It’s a clumsy tool, and when the rules it applies are equally clumsy, it does more harm than good. But lifestyle liberalism can also do a lot of damage. It can overrun and erode moral institutions. We need a party that speaks that truth. Republicans should be that party. They just need to catch up to the rest of us.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of same-sex marriage at the Supreme Court