In response to:
Grievance Conservatives Are Here to Stay from the July 1, 2021 issue
To the Editors:
Linda Greenhouse generously calls my book Gay Rights vs. Religious Liberty?: The Unnecessary Conflict “a novel and useful contribution to discourse on LGBTQ rights,” and appreciates “the willingness of one of the legal academy’s most prominent advocates for LGBTQ equality to meet the other side halfway” [NYR, July 1]. But she questions whether “the very notion of accommodation can be seen in today’s America as anything more than a noble thought experiment.”
She doesn’t believe that it is possible to reach any compromise with the religious right, some elements of which, she accurately notes, are dangerously antidemocratic and even theocratic, promoting a paranoid narrative of “grievance conservatism—conservatives’ belief that they are losing unfairly even when they are actually winning.” My subtitle calls the conflict “unnecessary.” She responds: “Unnecessary, perhaps, seen from the ten-thousand-foot level. Here on the ground, ‘The Inevitable Conflict’ seems more accurate.”
Very little that happens in history is inevitable.
The religious right is not a monolith. Its leaders have notably failed to control their constituents’ moral beliefs or political behavior. On gay rights issues, they are actually losing. A recent Gallup poll reports that 70 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage, as do 55 percent of self-identified Republicans. Among Americans aged eighteen to thirty-four, it is 84 percent. That last number must include a lot of religious conservatives.
Those leaders desperately wanted to reelect Trump, who, Greenhouse observes, “essentially handed the federal government’s policymaking apparatus over to the religious right.” But in 2020 they didn’t deliver. Biden’s victories in Michigan and Georgia came largely from outperforming Hillary Clinton among white evangelicals, a demographic she neglected. These voters are in play. It would be a mistake to give up on them. One path toward winning the political conflict is lowering the intensity of the cultural one.
Greenhouse obviously finds the religious right pretty scary. But, as a longtime proponent of gay rights (I am one of the lawyers who persuaded the Supreme Court that Title VII’s prohibition of sex discrimination forbids antigay discrimination), I’ve noticed that conservative Christians also regard us as pretty scary. They fear that the law will treat them like racists and drive them to the margins of American society. They are right to worry: they may not be able to be wedding vendors, counselors, social workers, or psychologists, or control the content or staffing of their own educational institutions. Their charities face the denial of funding and licenses. Equality does not require that, and the cause of equality will not be promoted by sympathetic news stories about sweet Christian grandmothers threatened with financial ruin by lawsuits.
Many Americans think their religion teaches that marriage is inherently heterosexual and that homosexual sex is morally wrong. It is not helpful to tell them that they will be reviled as hateful bigots unless they change their views. They need to be offered an alternative vision of America, one that has a legitimate place for them.
I know a lot of people of goodwill on both sides of this fight who would like it to stop. A book like mine is always an exercise in speculation: a vision for coexistence that might or might not—who knows?—persuade a sufficient critical mass of the audience to try it out. Political proposals are like Broadway shows: you can’t know until you put it in front of an audience whether you have a hit or a flop. The conflict will be inevitable only if we give up trying to end it.
John Paul Stevens Professor of Law