It seems quaint now, but it was not that long ago that the culture war appeared to be concluding. Some time between the first black president being elected and his White House being lit with rainbow spotlights, a shift was signaled in the zeitgeist that seemed permanent. There were pockets of discontent and room for progress, but LGBTQ civil rights seemed assuredly enshrined in federal law and constitutional interpretation. So, too, did other civil rights and core principles of democratic institutions.
When Donald Trump brazenly challenged the authenticity of President Obama’s birth certificate, few took him seriously. And his religious right backers, once mighty under George W. Bush, were reduced to rubes on Hoverounds and easily dismissed as having lost on “the wrong side of history.”
On November 8, 2016, much changed, including progressives’ delusion that much had changed at all. Long-settled debates of the 20th century roared back into the discourse. Equal treatment and equal justice again became debatable. The bloodthirsty horror movie monster that LGBTQ rights advocates thought was defeated got back up.
Anyone that has not noticed the resurgent political power of conservative Evangelicals is paying too much attention to pornstars. The religious right is reinvigorated under Trump, not because he embodies their values or because the culture has experienced a tectonic shift to make their views palatable again—but because their willingness to selectively temper their moral judgment and turn out the vote gives them political power.
That is what’s happening now. Many national religious right stalwarts have turned their focus locally with great success. Oklahoma and Kansas just passed state legislation permitting adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples. Iowa’s governor just signed a “heartbeat bill” severely restricting access to legal abortion. We are all biting our nails to see if the Colorado Civil Rights Commission can compel wedding cake equality.
The shift in focus makes perfect sense. Federally, even with retirements on the Supreme Court, it is unlikely abortion will be prohibited. Aggregate opinion on marriage equality has continued marching toward unanimity. But districts and counties retain trenchant resistance and it is in these arenas that conservative Evangelical leaders see the possibility of actually impacting policy long-term.
At this moment, Franklin Graham is on a multicity rockstar revival tour of California. His missionary message is religious, but inexorably political: he sees no meaningful distinction between saving souls and turning out voters. He and other conservative Evangelical leaders are specifically eyeing successfully progressive California to capitalize on their new moment in the sun. They believe there is still work to do and battles to be won.
Back in 2003, a religious right organization was not a serious opponent of gay rights if it did not submit an amicus brief in Lawrence v. Texas. In that case, two men in Texas were arrested in their home for having sex and faced jail time and the sex-offender registry. Every religious right group sided with the state. They put their reputations behind arguments in favor of jailing consenting adults for having sex in their own homes. In light of so many gay rights victories in the interim, it is easy to forget that these groups have not changed their minds. Each would still like to do move society in that direction.
The religious right is infamous because it quite literally seeks to place the power of the state in the bedroom. Given its policy preferences, state and local governments are ideal venues. The political agenda of conservative Evangelicals seeks to use authority to coerce their theology into public accommodations, education, and voting. Of course the focus is on state legislatures, school boards and election boards. National debates soak up all the attention. But local level governance has the potential to directly impact a citizen’s life precisely in the areas the religious right targets.
That precision is why Californians need to be vigilant, vocal and voting. California is a blue state, but it has not been immune to attacks on marginalized communities. Like the country, California retains reactionary and racist rubbish we thought was safely swept into the dustbin. Within its populace resides a revived rebellion against gay rights. They are galvanized and demonstrably effective. Take them seriously. The march of progress can be reversed even in the Golden State. Public accommodations, curricula and textbooks, commercial enfranchisement and, yes, even marriage equality can be undermined by a thousand ordinances, board votes and Assembly bills.
Graham and his cohorts say they are squarely focused on California because of its cliche predictive power over national policy. I hope he is wrong. But, just in case he is right, just in case California is producing the sequel to America’s anti-gay horror movie, I also hope its victims are sufficiently frightened.
Bias and bigotry have ways of seeping into bureaucracy. There are enough deep red communities in California to manifest an interpretation of religious freedom that is really a license to discriminate. Graham’s revival actively recruits a zealous faithful in theology and politics. In contrast to progressives’ penchant for complexity and pluralism, they march with metaphysical certitude, confident in their righteousness and ultimate victory.
In the summer of 2016, there was no way the UK would vote in favor of Brexit. In the fall of 2016 there was no way Donald Trump could become president. What other unthinkable outcomes wait around the corner?
Fair minded people dismiss populist uprisings at their peril. The religious right has chosen California as its new frontier in anti-LGBT prospecting. Let’s hope the territory is well defended.