America is a country founded on Puritan morality and has always been viewed as a socially conservative country. However, with the changing opinions about abortion and homosexual marriage among the population, socially conservative politicians must adjust to these changes to have a chance of winning over the public, writes Luke Cahill.
One of America’s founding principles was that of religious liberty. The belief that a person could practice any religion they chose as long as it was not to the detriment of others. This was however tempered by the belief the new nation was the new Jerusalem, or in the famous 1630 speech by John Winthrop, “a city upon a hill”. The pilgrims saw America as their chance to establish a sinless, pure society that the rest of the world could model itself on. This belief that America was exceptional in comparison to other nations was re-enforced by a strict Puritan morality that, it was said, would become a beacon for the rest of the world.
Its Puritan roots, which gave rise to a suspicion of Catholicism, made people see America as a Protestant nation. This was in spite of the Founding Fathers being explicitly tolerant in matters of religion, favouring none but allowing all. So even before the formal break with the British Empire, the thirteen colonies had two conflicting ideas.
The belief that the United States was better than other nations, and should therefore be more moral than other nations, is still at the heart of many people’s idea of what the United States stands for. Beginning in the 1960s, in the eyes of many Americans, a raft of court rulings seemed to overturn this ideal. These rulings set up a rift between many conservative Americans and the courts, which endures to this day.
One of the most notable cases was that of the Supreme Court ruling of Griswold v Connecticut in 1965. The ruling gave married couples the right to privacy and overturned a Connecticut law that forbade the sale of any contraceptives. The Supreme Court ruled on Eisenstadt v. Baird in 1972 that extended the right to contraception to unmarried couples. The polarising Roe v Wade decision, that allowed abortion, followed a year later.
Taken collectively these decisions anger many social conservatives. Congresswomen Michele Bachmann, who hopes to stand against President Obama next year, represents a continuation of this tradition of social conservatism. After a 2004 court ruling in Massachusetts that allowed same sex marriage, Bachmann warned that “In our public schools, whether they want to or not, they’ll be forced to start teaching that same-sex marriage is equal, that it is normal and that children should try it”. More recently, Truth Wins Out, a gay group, revealed that Bachmann and her husband, Marcus, own a clinic that attempts to “cure” people of being gay. One of the Truth Wins Out group said that “We urge Bachmann & Associates to stop misleading the public and commit to ending the harmful and discredited practice of ‘ex-gay’ therapy”.
Many of the candidates seeking the GOP nomination are courting the Religious Right and the highly organised socially conservative voters at its core. These candidates have also to contend with the opposing trend, that voters are increasingly supportive of gay marriage and have consistently supportive views on divorce. Interestingly, at the same time as there is a general trend towards tolerance, 75% of respondents in a poll say moral values in the U.S. are getting worse. This relates back in with America trying to reconcile being both tolerant, as per its founding principles, and the belief that it must be a moral beacon to the world.
So when Republican candidates are asked to sign socially conservative pledges they understandably think twice. They must balance their desire to attract a certain base, while at the same time, not alienating the vast number of independents, many of whom are socially liberal. Mike Huckabee was well liked by social conservatives in the 2008 campaign for the nomination but failed to attract any support beyond this group and thus his candidature faltered. Many suspect a similar fate awaits former senator Rick Santorum this time around. Similarly, in the 2004 election President Bush ran on a socially conservative platform. Yet in 2010 Bush’s wife, Laura, spoke out supporting both gay marriage and abortion, reflecting the growing majority of Americans views. Therefore when Mitt Romney refused to sign a pledge opposing gay marriage and supporting the Defense of Marriage Act, he thought twice and guessed it was better to have the bigger social liberal vote than the core social conservative vote if he faced Obama. Campaign aides said that “Mitt Romney strongly supports traditional marriage but he felt this pledge contained references and provisions that were undignified and inappropriate for a presidential campaign,” Unsurprisingly both Santorum and Bachmann both signed.
There will always be a core of social conservatives in America that will be supported by some politicians but their backing alone is not enough to become president of the United States.
To read Luke Cahill’s other articles visit Luke Cahill’s Politics On Toast blog. This article is (C) Politics on Toast and Luke Cahill.