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Over the weekend one of the Christian right’s most public defenders, Ross Douthat, essentially threw in the towel in opposing gay rights. In one of his regular columns for the paper of record titled The Terms of Our Surrender Douthat not only conceded that the “religious liberty” argument put forth by other pundits was doomed, but that Christians had no right to claim persecution.

Douthat said at first he hoped conservative Christians would be able to carve out an exception but now sees that negotiation probably won’t happen. That sexual orientation segregationists are likely to suffer the same  social and legal fate as racial segregationists. He sees the recent vetoing of the religious liberty/segregationist bill in Arizona as the beginning of the end.

What makes this response particularly instructive is that such bills have been seen, in the past, as a way for religious conservatives to negotiate surrender — to accept same-sex marriage’s inevitability while carving out protections for dissent. But now, apparently, the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.

Which has a certain bracing logic. If your only goal is ensuring that support for traditional marriage diminishes as rapidly as possible, applying constant pressure to religious individuals and institutions will probably do the job. Already, my fellow Christians are divided over these issues, and we’ll be more divided the more pressure we face. The conjugal, male-female view of marriage is too theologically rooted to disappear, but its remaining adherents can be marginalized, set against one other, and encouraged to conform.

At first read it appears as though Douthat is laying the groundwork for a defense of carving out an exception, that the religious are being persecuted and should be given special consideration. But actually Douthat goes even further than saying the battle is lost, he goes on to say Christians had it coming for generations of homophobia and discrimination and they are not victims at all.

I am being descriptive here, rather than self-pitying. Christians had plenty of opportunities — thousands of years’ worth — to treat gay people with real charity, and far too often chose intolerance. (And still do, in many instances and places.) So being marginalized, being sued, losing tax-exempt status — this will be uncomfortable, but we should keep perspective and remember our sins, and nobody should call it persecution.

Martyrs ye not be.

If Douthat’s analysis is correct this could be the end of unity between the center right and far right on the “religious liberty” issue. Douthat even questioned the often invoked charge of “persecution” as being illegitimate. It’s a pretty clean break.

The consequences of the center right opposition to gay rights collapsing means the only real opponents remaining will be the most unsympathetic bigoted people who have no finesse in disguising the fact that they use religion as a rationalization for their bigotry. They will alienate more people and ultimately become fringe figures of minor influence.

Photo by Paul M. Walsh under Creative Commons license.