The Republican party’s awkward sexual positions

Evangelicals are Trump's biggest support base
Evangelicals are Trump's biggest support base - Charlie Neibergall

Less than a year from the elections in November 2024, Republicans have reason to be optimistic. Joe Biden’s approval ratings are lower than those of any president since Harry Truman in 1948.

Voter dissatisfaction with inflation, immigration chaos, crime, and the stalemated war in Ukraine may turn into a backlash against the Democratic party as a whole. In spite of his personal flaws and the attempts of Democratic prosecutors to bankrupt him and send him to prison on dubious charges, Donald Trump is doing surprisingly well. A New York Times/Siena poll in December 2023 found that Trump is favoured by young registered voters aged 18 to 29.

Even more shocking to Democrats has been another poll showing Trump leading Biden among Hispanic voters, 39-34. But the ability of the Republican party to exploit public discontent over the economy, immigration, and foreign policy may be undermined by the right’s unpopular positions on issues on abortion, contraception, and gay rights.

In the mid-term elections of 2022, many observers expected Republicans to do far better in congressional elections than they did. The major factor that turned the expected “red wave” into a “red trickle” was the overturning in 2022 by the Supreme Court in its holding in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization of the decision in Roe v. Wade, which back in 1973 had legalised abortion, within limits.

Evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics who had called for the repeal of Roe for decades were jubilant. But the backlash against Dobbs by independents in the fall 2022 elections probably reduced the Republican majority in the House and may have denied the Senate to the Republican Party.

In Dobbs, the Supreme Court returned the question of abortion to the states. In the summer of 2023, a year after the decision, half of the 50 states in the US had bans on abortion following conception (14), six weeks (1), 12 weeks (1), 15-18 weeks (3), and 20-22 weeks (6), sometimes with exceptions for rape, incest, or the health of the mother.

Public opinion on abortion is nuanced, with most Americans favoring access to abortion at early stages of pregnancy but not at later stages, with some exceptions. Unfortunately for the Republican party, if the issue is defined in simple binary terms as being pro-or-anti-abortion, 55 per cent of Americans call themselves pro-choice, compared to only 39 per cent who call themselves pro-life.

The availability of the abortion pill mifepristone as a prescription drug in the United States is another issue in which Republicans are in the minority. More than six out of ten Americans favor access, including 86 per cent of Democrats and 63 per cent of independents. So do nearly half of Republicans, at 41 per cent.

In the case of transgender rights, 69 per cent of Americans say that athletes should play only on teams that match their birth gender. Sixty per cent believe that gender is determined at birth and nearly half favour outlawing “gender-affirming care,” an Orwellian euphemism for using techniques including hormone injections, castration, and mastectomies to alter the bodies of dysmorphic patients, including children, to match their self-images. At the same time, however, 64 per cent of Americans think that transgender individuals should be protected by civil rights laws.

Crusades against drag queens fire up the conservative base in the Republican party but they may put off moderate and independent voters who do not want to be thought of as intolerant. The campaign of Ron DeSantis for the Republican nomination, based on attacking the Disney corporation for being too pro-trans and pro-gay and attacking sex-ed in schools, has been a miserable flop even with Republican voters.

The Republican party is even more at odds with national opinion when it comes to the rights of gay men and lesbians.  Same-sex marriage was legalised nationwide by the Supreme Court in 2015 in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, defeating more than a decade of efforts by the Republican right to outlaw it at the state and federal levels. In the past two years American public support for same-sex marriage reached a high at 71 per cent.

The only groups that oppose same-sex marriage are Republicans and weekly church-goers. But even among those groups, nearly half support same-sex marriage – 49 per cent in the case of Republicans and 41 per cent in the case of weekly church-goers, demonstrating that the hostility to gay rights of evangelical Protestants and right-wing Catholics is unrepresentative even of the Republican party.

The dilemma for Republican politicians is that voters with extreme conservative views on abortion, contraception, and gay rights, particularly evangelical Protestants, are a minority in the electorate but are over-represented in Republican primary elections. Even worse for the Republicans, evangelical Protestants, like mainline Protestants, make up a declining share of the US population, which is following the European trend toward secularisation. Between 2006 and 2021, the white evangelical share of the American population has declined from 23 per cent in 2006 to only 14.5 per cent in 2021.

It remains to be seen whether sex-related policy positions that are popular with the shrinking Republican religious right but unpopular with the public will help the Democrats in 2024, as the pro-abortion backlash among voters following the Dobbs decision did in 2022. But the decline in church membership and conventional Christian belief in the US, combined with the liberalisation of public attitudes on gay rights and abortion, are long-term trends that are unlikely to be reversed.

British and continental European conservatives long ago adapted to similar trends on their other side of the Atlantic. “We don’t do God,” Tony Blair’s spin doctor Alastair Campbell reportedly said. To remain competitive in the twenty-first century, American Republicans may need to learn from their trans-Atlantic counterparts how to be conservative without being sectarian.

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