I am a conservative Republican, but I believe in democracy and the separation of church and state. The conservative movement is founded on the simple tenet that people have the right to live life as they please as long as they don’t hurt anyone else in the process. — Barry Goldwater


In a previously published essay, I discussed the life and career of Barry Goldwater, the Republican Senator from Arizona and his support of gays serving in the US military. Beyond this, he was in favour of gay rights in all of US society. This support was based on his conviction that there be a strict separation between religion and state. Goldwater’s position on gay rights and the separation of religion and state put him at odds with many conservatives, particularly the religious constituency known as the Christian right that supports the GOP and various socially conservative causes in the United States. The Christian right is composed primarily of the Moral Majority, renamed Moral Majority Coalition in 2004, the Christian Coalition of America, Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council. The most prominent figures in the Christian Right are Jerry Falwell (deceased), Pat Robertson, James Dobson and Tony Perkins.

The Christian right began mobilizing and asserting itself in the political arena in the United States during the late 1970s. Moral Majority was founded by Jerry Falwell in 1979; Focus on the Family was founded in 1977, and the Family Research Council was founded in 1981 by James Dobson; the Christian Coalition of America was founded in 1988, its original name being Christian Coalition, by Pat Robertson. Opposition to gay rights initiatives is a significant plank in the platform of the Christian right. The term homosexual agenda was coined by the Family Research Council in 1992 and is commonly used by the Christian right in campaigns against gay rights initiatives, most recently its failed efforts to stop the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California Proposition 8.

Goldwater condemned what he saw as a blurring of the separation of religion and state the Christian right sought to impose on US society from the get-go, saying while he was still in office in 1981:

by maintaining the separation of church and state the United States has avoided the intolerance which has so divided the rest of the world with religious wars […] Can any of us refute the wisdom of Madison and the other framers? Can anyone look at the carnage in Iran, the bloodshed in Northern Ireland, or the bombs bursting in Lebanon and yet question the dangers of injecting religious issues into the affairs of state? (as cited in Barry Goldwater vs the Religious Right)

Goldwater was less eloquent when he quipped “every good Christian should line up and kick Jerry Falwell’s ass” in responding to Falwell’s assertion, “every good Christian should be concerned.” His response concerned the nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court of the United States in 1981. Falwell and other leaders of the Christian right were concerned that Day O’Connor might be inclined to hand down rulings on matters such as abortion and other issues of conscience that were contrary to their position on the issues. Goldwater was critical of Pat Robertson, who in 1988 sought the GOP nomination for president, observing some years afterward:

I don’t have any respect for the Religious Right. There is no place in this country for practicing religion in politics. That goes for Falwell, Robertson and all the rest of these political preachers. They are a detriment to the country. (as cited in Barry Goldwater vs the Religious Right).

Goldwater continued to stand up to the Christian right in retirement. In 1994 Goldwater, in retirement, signed on as honorary co-chair, with Barbara Roberts, the former Governor of Oregon, with Americans Against Discrimination. Americans Against Discrimination was an initiative of the Human Rights Campaign to lobby for the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in the US House and Senate. As yet, ENDA has not been enacted but would prohibit discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation or gender identity by civilian, nonreligious employers with at least 15 employees. Goldwater had a clear sense of the injustice in this form of discrimination and stated, in joining the campaign against it, “it’s time America realized that there was no gay exemption in the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence. Job discrimination against gays or anybody else is contrary to each of these founding principles.” (as cited in Sun Sentinel). He added:

gays and lesbians are a part of every American family. They should not be shortchanged in their efforts to better their lives and serve their communities. As President Clinton likes to say, ‘If you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll be rewarded’ and not with a pink slip just for being gay. (as cited in Barry Goldwater on the “Religious Right” and “Gay Rights”)

While ENDA has not been enacted, gay people now serve openly in the US military. With the repeal of DOMA, gay couples serving in the military can claim spousal benefits. The District of Columbia, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington and California currently allow same-sex marriage. The states of Hawaii, New Jersey, Illinois, Colorado, Nevada and Wisconsin have provisions in state law to allow for civil unions and domestic partnerships for same-sex couples. As Goldwater is deceased, it is not possible to ask for his opinion on this trend toward granting gay people full civil rights in US society. Still, I think it reasonable to infer he would be pleased, particularly so in that the Christian right is finding itself on the losing side in its efforts to deny gay people civil rights. The fight is far from over and will continue for some time to come.

The Christian right succeeded in a ballot initiative in North Carolina, Amendment 1, which defines marriage in the state constitution as between one man and one woman. This will likely be declared unconstitutional when challenged in the courts, but time will tell. As US society becomes more accepting of gay people and grants full civil rights, I find it gratifying that this is, in part, the legacy of Barry Goldwater. A conservative Republican who was once considered extreme by his own party for his brand of conservatism. That he stood up for the rights of gay people and for the separation of religion and state in US society so firmly gives me a newfound respect for the man.

Posted by Geoffrey

2 thoughts on “I am a conservative Republican, but I believe in democracy and the separation of church and state. The conservative movement is founded on the simple tenet that people have the right to live life as they please as long as they don’t hurt anyone else in the process. — Barry Goldwater

  1. Pingback: Church and State my reply to notestoponder | randomthoughts

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