Sibling Rivalry: Religious Freedom Puts Economic and Religious Conservatives At Odds

It’s no secret that Donald Trump’s candidacy has created a conundrum for the Republican Party. In primary after primary, America’s most famous businessman peels the party’s bloc away from establishment candidates like Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R).

Meanwhile, state legislatures in Georgia and North Carolina just propelled discriminatory bills to the desks of their respective governors – much to the dismay of business communities in both states.

Georgia’s business community, dominated by giants like Apple, Salesforce, Home Depot and some film and TV productions, successfully urged Gov. Nathan Deal (R) to veto H.B. 757. If passed, this bill could have allowed individuals, businesses and publicly-funded social services groups to refuse to adhere to anti-discrimination laws that conflict with their religious views.

Supporters never branded North Carolina’s bill, H.B. 2, a "religious freedom" measure. Instead, they intended it to nullify local anti-discrimination ordinances designed to protect LGBT people; it also forces transgender public school students to use bathroom and locker facilities that don’t correspond to their real gender. Gov. Pat McCrory (R) signed it. And in North Carolina, as in Georgia, major businesses protested: The National Basketball Association has announced it may move next year’s All-Star Game from Charlotte.

In a provocative piece published yesterdayThe Washington Post’s James Hohmann argued that the controversy reveals a growing split within the Republican Party. Social issues, he wrote, no longer hold the party together. Instead, they’ve created an “almost irreconcilable divide” between value voters and business interests.

“Each side remains influential,” he wrote. “Evangelical leaders can mobilize large numbers of activists and voters in key states and congressional districts. Corporations, meanwhile, operating in a post-Citizens United world of unlimited political spending, have the ability to put enormous pressure on policymakers.”

That pressure trumps the Religious Right’s agenda with accelerating frequency.

Indiana’s Gov. Mike Pence (R) listened to Salesforce, Angie’s List and other corporations last year after his decision to sign a discriminatory “religious freedom” bill earned his state nationwide condemnation; he eventually signed a less discriminatory “fix” to the bill.

This hasn't deterred religious conservatives. “One of the largest cultural imperatives that helped lead to the rise of Christianity was the view of the sexually licentious nature of the Roman Empire,” GOP operative Gregg Keller told Hohmann. “This is not a bug of evangelical Christianity; this is a feature. This is a hill on which evangelical Christians are going to be willing to die.”

There has long been a martyr narrative built into Religious Right rhetoric. Its loyalists put great stock in a passage from 1 Corinthians that says the message of the cross is foolishness to the perishing and asserts that Christ has come to destroy the wisdom of the wise. The widening cultural gap between religious social conservatives and the rest of the country only confirms what the former already believe about the sinful character of the world. To individuals with a millenarian bent, it’s also evidence that the world has truly entered the End Times.

The tension between these two camps is long-running. It’s difficult to tell what it might mean for the Republican Party. The party may split, but conservatives in both camps may also decide to stick with it as their best chance for continued electoral success.

The Religious Right, however, isn’t going anywhere: religious fundamentalists who believe culture war is a divine obligation are unlikely to surrender because the CEO of Salesforce thinks they’re on the wrong side of history. Instead, observers should expect the movement to become increasingly active – and aggressive.