Is Anti-LGBT Legislation the New Southern Strategy?

In the ramp up to both the Democratic and Republican conventions the candidates have received little scrutiny of their positions on civil rights for LGBT people, or cultural issues more generally. This is curious given the furor over a host of LGBT discrimination bills that have flown through state legislatures in Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia, North Carolina, and are successfully percolating up the legislative chambers in several others including South Carolina and Tennessee.

While both Democratic candidates for the nomination have resoundingly criticized the latest round of anti-LGBT legislation, the Republican candidates have been largely silent. Ted Cruz remains a staunch opponent of same-sex marriage and has vowed to end it, as has Donald Trump, in spite of his endorsement by the Log Cabin Republicans. In contrast, John Kasich wants to “move on”, though we don’t really know what that means in terms of his support of “religious freedom” measures or other discriminatory laws. Anti-gay bigotry seems to be the new “Southern Strategy” for the Republican Party, and they are poised to continue to include opposition to same-sex marriage in their Party Platform—as they have since 1992.

Very Opposed

The easy passage of discriminatory legislation in Southern states, and elsewhere, is strongly connected to religious commitments. As I showed in Changing Faith and in other papers, identifications with exclusivist sects and Baptist groups has a profoundly negative effect on support for same-sex marriage, while rejecting religious identification has a strong positive effect on support. Opposition to marriage rights is crystallized by commitments to Biblical literalism, while it is generally undermined by the belief that the Bible is a “book of fables.”

In the 2014 GSS data presented above, what’s notable is that vehement opposition—very opposed vs. opposed—is substantially higher in the South regardless of religious beliefs or identifications. In the South, nearly 14% of people with secular beliefs in the Bible nonetheless are “very opposed” to same-sex marriage compared to under 3% outside the South. And, over 15% of Southern “nones” are animated in their opposition—compared to less than 6% among non-Southerners.

Put another way: a Southern “none” is almost 50% more likely to be “very opposed” to same-sex marriage than a non-Southerner who believes the Bible is “inspired by God.”

LGBT Not Allowed To Teach

A particularly chilling indicator of the animus toward LGBT persons in the South is the proportion of people who would fire a college professor for admitting they are gay or lesbian. Again, across all religious commitments, support for employment discrimination against gays and lesbians is substantially higher in the South—even among seculars. Indeed, Southerners with secular beliefs about the Bible (“book of fables”) are actually more supportive of discrimination than are those who believe the Bible was inspired by God. Overall, 17.3% of Southerners would fire a college professor for being gay or lesbian, compared to 8% of non-Southerners.

Regional Differences in Bible Beliefs

The South is a hotbed of anti-LGBT sentiment because a large fraction of the population identifies as Baptists or with other exclusivist sects, and they also tend to hold literalist beliefs in the Bible. Over 45% of Southerners hold literalist views, compared to fewer than 26% of non-Southerners, while only 12% of Southerners adhere to a secular view, compared to 28% of non-Southerners. In areas dominated by Baptists and other sects, which includes most of the rural districts in the South, opposition to civil rights for LGBT people will be found among a majority of citizens—which helps explain the zeal of their representatives for promoting anti-LGBT legislation.

Most of the discussion of these anti-LGBT bills has focused on corporate and cultural backlash, as Paypal, Bruce Springsteen, and Ringo Starr weigh in with their wallets and condemnation. Yet, ignoring the fact that these bills are easily passing through state legislatures in spite of heated corporate opposition fails to make sense of their genesis. The religious right is not dead, and it dominates the South and even influences non-religious Southerners. Will it be Nixon all over again?