Since the boiling cauldron of the 1960’s reawakened an assertive religiously conservative faction, social conservatism has played a potent role in North Carolina and American politics. Politicians such as Jesse Helms, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush rode socially conservative currents to victory over the course of multiple decades. The power of social conservatism outlasted its public support in the 21st century with battles over Amendment One and the election of Donald Trump. But this year’s events spell the end of the Religious Right as a force in our politics.
If there was a silver lining for social conservatives in their series of devastating defeats this century, it was the appointment of two conservative justices to the US Supreme Court. In addition to anti-immigration sentiment and masculinity, it was judicial appointments that sealed Trump’s alliance with the Religious Right. Evangelicals and traditionalist Catholics rejoiced at the ascension of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the high court. That’s why Gorsuch’s decision attributing freedom from discrimination to LGBTQ people is a devastating psychological and policy blow to social conservatives. They can’t even count on their own jurists to uphold dying sexual hierarchies.
Sexual and racial hierarchies are fundamental to the social-conservative worldview. The former suffered a decisive defeat at the Supreme Court this month. The latter is under the most potent assault since the Civil Rights era. Polls show strong transracial support for the Black Lives Matter movement in spite of predictions that Trump could harness “law and order” sentiment against it. White racial attitudes are liberalizing at an extraordinary rate. Even in North Carolina, which lost more men to the dishonorable Confederate cause than any other state and has an unyielding reactionary legislature, monuments to the Confederacy are being removed from public spaces. The ethnocentric structure of traditional America is increasingly discredited.
The social fabric of our country is changing along with people’s attitudes. Same-sex marriage, once such a powerful issue for conservatives that Bill Clinton signed a federal ban on it in 1996, is no longer controversial. Women make up a majority of professional and managerial jobs in the economy. We welcome an historically large number of immigrants every year, and 82% of them are people of color. Mayberry America is quickly being replaced a polychrome civilization of cities and suburbs.
In the midst of this Fifth American Revolution, socially conservative candidates are losing badly. The most recent New York Times poll showed Donald Trump down by a disastrous 14-point margin. In North Carolina, Dan Forest, by far the most socially conservative candidate to run for governor in living memory, has been trailing by double digits for months. Republican efforts to trip up Governor Cooper with inflammatory abortion and immigration legislation have gone nowhere.
Social conservatism has usually bent the arc of American and North Carolina history away from justice. Intellectual conservatives like William F. Buckley defended Southern segregation in the 1960’s and Elizabeth Dole tried to salvage her failing campaign by demonizing atheists. HB2 decimated North Carolina’s good name. Trump treated migrants as barely human. This moment of Waterloo for the cultural right is a clear step toward forming a more perfect union.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.