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York: In the fight for marriage, religious liberty still an issue

Published: Friday, April 4, 2014 9:59 p.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, April 4, 2014 10:01 p.m. CDT

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, with 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.

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 through 29 approve of gay marriage, and 43 percent of those aged 30 through 49 approve. 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.

“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.”

Moore’s fall-back 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.” Attacks on religious liberty are already well underway, Moore noted. But evangelicals must “recognize where the country is right now.”

“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.

• Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.

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