Both millennial Republican activists who support same-sex marriage and their peers who oppose it believe the party is at a critical tipping point and will soon support same-sex marriage.
The growing political influence of millennials in the coming decade is one factor that has led Michigan political analyst Greg McNeilly to believe that the Michigan Republican Party may officially support same-sex marriages in as few as five years. Andrew Walker, director of policy studies at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, also believes Republicans will support same-sex marriage in the short-term.
“It looks like trends [in Michigan] are quite similar to trends happening across the country when it comes to the GOP’s youth revolt on traditional marriage,” Walker said. “No doubt, in the short term, it looks bleak that the GOP can withstand the cultural pressures to redefine marriage.”
Although shifts on same-sex marriage are already occurring within the party, impending action by the Supreme Court will likely accelerate that change and return the issue to the forefront of national debate.
Michigan is one of four states whose gay marriage ban was upheld by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2014. Recently, the Supreme Court granted petitions by all four states, and will likely hear oral arguments in April and make a ruling by June. Many believe this ruling will determine whether the U.S. Constitution protects same-sex marriage.
Awkward Issue for Conservative Millennials
Gabriel Leaf, chairman of the University of Michigan College Republicans, is one millennial pushing the party towards same-sex marriage.
“As we get able to push the Party more, we can begin to push the Party to our ideals,” said Leaf, a supporter of same-sex marriage. “I see the Republican Party with young people focusing less and less on social issues.”
Politically active millennials who oppose same-sex marriage also believe this shift is occurring.
“I still hold very strongly, conservative, traditional marriage, pro-life [values], but I know that a lot of Republicans are moving towards allowing for same-sex marriage,” said Sarah Davis, the founder of Wayne State University’s college Republican chapter.
Although a Pew Research poll said that millennial support of same-sex marriage was at 66 percent in 2013, Lisa Jankowski, chairman of the Michigan State College Republican Chapter, who declined to state her position, said the issue is contentious enough that she doesn’t talk about it at chapter meetings. The same is true for Davis and Leaf.
This unwillingness to address same-sex marriage also extended to the 2014 midterm elections, as many candidates in Michigan, including Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, avoided the marriage issue completely while campaigning.
Instead of focusing on social issues, the college Republican chapters at U-Michigan, Michigan State, and Wayne State focus on issues like the economy, energy, and the Second Amendment.
“We all have our social issues, but I think for young people, what really matters is finding a job,” Jankowski said.
Intra-Republican Party Debate Rumbles Beneath the Surface
But, according to McNeilly, a political advisor to the powerful DeVos family who is gay, Republicans cannot avoid the issue indefinitely. And, he argues, the later the same-sex marriage issue breaks out into the open, the more likely Republicans are to support it.
McNeilly believes that if the issue comes up in the next one to two years in Michigan, the Republican Party will support traditional marriage. If the issue comes up in four to five years, McNeilly believes the party will come out as tolerant of gay marriage.
Although gay marriage wasn’t one of the main issues of the last election, the debate over adding sexual orientation to Michigan’s civil rights legislation underscored this burgeoning discussion. Some lauded this action as a needed legal update, while social conservatives argued it would restrict religious freedom.
The Republican chair of the House Commerce Committee proposed the change and the Republican Senate majority leader, Republican House Speaker, and Republican governor hammered out the legislation. It died largely because Democrats believed it didn’t go far enough.
Official Republican support of gay marriage would be unacceptable for many social conservatives, putting them in a moral dilemma every time they go to the ballot box. This action would also cause tension in Republican caucuses throughout the country and on Capitol Hill. It could push some social conservatives to vote third-party, politically crippling both their political influence and that of the Republican Party in the short term, if not for longer. If social conservatives lose this battle, they face political marginalization by the party many of them historically supported and served within.
Walker, who has written extensively on the same-sex marriage debate, believes there is hope for social conservatives, even if that hope is years in the future.
“Activists always consider their ideas ‘inevitable,’ that is, until they’re brushed back by principled argument,” Walker said. “Following Roe v. Wade, it was ‘inevitable’ that the GOP would endorse abortion rights. But what happened? ‘Inevitability’ was brushed back by the hard work of citizens across this country who joined together to build a culture of life.”
Walker believes that in the long run, “collateral damage” from today’s social policy will cause people to eventually return to natural marriage.
The question is no longer whether millennials will factor into the Republican Party’s shift on same-sex marriage in the short term, but how social conservatives’ response will affect marriage policy in the long term.