In 2008, both Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain supported defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. In 2012, only Republican Mitt Romney supported traditional marriage, Obama having announced a change of heart six months before the election.
What about 2016? It's impossible to imagine a Democratic candidate not supporting the redefinition of marriage. As for Republicans, it's hard to see a gay-marriage-supporting candidate make it through the GOP primaries. But it is possible to imagine a Republican nominee who finds a softer way to oppose gay marriage without alienating either his party's older voters, who continue to overwhelmingly disapprove, or the millions of Americans who now support same-sex unions?
While an overwhelming majority of Democrats (69 percent) approve of gay marriage, just 39 percent of Republicans do, according to a Pew survey released this month. But Pew found that 61 percent of Republicans aged 18-29 approve of gay marriage, and 43 percent of those aged 30-49 approve. How will Republican candidates talk to them? A hint came this week, not from a politician, but from a leading evangelical.
Russell Moore, the 42-year-old president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, is a star in cultural conservative circles. Speaking at a conference of journalists organized by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Moore, a strong supporter of traditional marriage, was asked what his ideal presidential candidate would say about the issue.
"I would want a presidential candidate who understands the public good of marriage," Moore answered, "and one who is not hostile to evangelical concerns, and who is going to protect religious liberty and freedom of conscience." To illustrate such protections of liberty, Moore mentioned ensuring that Catholic adoption agencies are allowed to place children only in traditional-marriage homes.
Missing from Moore's answer was a firm requirement that a presidential candidate be a vocal opponent of gay marriage. Indeed, at another point in his remarks, Moore noted that evangelicals are "beginning to realize that American culture is moving toward same-sex marriage."
"We have been saying, 'Look, same-sex marriage is inevitable in American culture," Moore continued. "It doesn't mean we should stop talking about it … It means we need to start preparing our churches for a new generation."
Moore's fallback position — there's no other way to describe it — is to insist that once the marriage fight is lost, the beliefs of Americans who oppose homosexual marriage on religious grounds be respected. While Moore rejected those who "suggest, 'Let's simply abandon the question of marriage altogether and simply deal with religious liberty issues,'" there's little doubt he's putting new emphasis on liberty and less on manning the barricades against gay marriage.
Moore's position fits perfectly with a recent assessment by the Washington Examiner's Tim Carney: "Conservatives see religious liberty arguments as the last redoubt in the culture war: You guys won your gay marriages, permissive abortion laws, taxpayer-subsidized birth control, and divorce-on-demand; let us just live our lives according to our own consciences."
Carney is under no illusion that culture warriors on the Left will allow that to happen. Neither is Moore. He responded with a quick "no" when asked whether he believes pro-gay-marriage activists, the ones who identified test cases and filed lawsuits and pushed the issue from state to state, will now just step back and allow, say, religious adoption agencies to operate according their beliefs.
Attacks on religious liberty are already well underway, Moore noted. But evangelicals must "recognize where the country is right now." Having an old-style political fight on gay marriage — for example, pushing for a one-man-one-woman constitutional amendment — is "a politically ridiculous thing to do right now." Instead, Moore said, "We have to be ready for these religious liberty issues before they hit us."
White evangelicals remain firmly Republican. In 2012, they voted for Romney over Obama 79 percent to 20 percent, which is very close to the margin of victory of George W. Bush over John Kerry (73 to 26) among white evangelicals in 2004. But if Moore is correct, evangelical politics is changing fast.
"As time goes on, the illusion of a moral majority is no longer sustainable in this country," Moore said, making both a faith-based judgment and a reference to the once-powerful religious Right political organization. "I don't think the culture wars are over … but are moving into a new phase."
Moore certainly doesn't represent all evangelicals. But his is an influential voice. And as far as marriage is concerned, younger evangelicals, and perhaps evangelicals as a whole, appear no longer likely to require that a political candidate go to war over the issue — and more likely to insist that leaders protect the faithful's beliefs.