Is there a Reformation taking place in the Republican party? The word on the street that the party of "straights" is starting to bend, especially on the issue of same-sex marriage.

In February, 131 noted Republicans signed an amicus brief submitted to the US supreme court arguing that marriage is a fundamental right that should not be denied to gay and lesbian Americans. RNC Chair Reince Priebus has said that the party should not "divide and subtract" members who support marriage equality. Senators Mark Kirk and Rob Portman are the most recent GOP politicians to come out in support of marriage equality. Even Bill O'Reilly, who as recently as 2009 compared same-sex marriage to marriage between people and turtles, now appears to be backtracking, accusing its opponents of lacking "compelling argument(s)" and merely "thump(ing) the Bible".

At the same time, there seem to be an awful lot of people in the GOP who haven't gotten the message. Last week, rising star Dr Benjamin Carson compared same-sex relationships to pedophilia and bestiality; Kansas's Tim Huelscamp claims that "redefining matrimony will destroy the family"; the Republican marriage equality group GOProud was banned from co-sponsoring this year's CPAC. Newt Gingrich predicts that the GOP will be "torn" over the issue.

Whoever wins the debate over same-sex marriage – and it does seem to be a matter of when, not if, a more moderate stance will prevail – it would be a mistake to suppose all of this portends an end to the culture wars. The idea that a shift in Republican positions on an issue like this signals a major underlying transformation of the party overlooks a lot of history. It confuses the alleviation of a symptom with the treatment of a cause.

Same-sex marriage is just one in a series with which the Republican party has stoked the culture wars. Immigration, reproductive freedom, school-sponsored prayer, and other issues have all come with the same baggage and served the same purposes.

The first and most important fact to know about these issues is that they are all essentially reactive. That is, they aren't so much about achieving specific policy goals as about expressing a certain attitude toward developments in modern culture. They reflect broader fears and anxieties over the pace and nature of social change, and often involve a sense of personal or collective resentment. Sarah Palin, in her inimitable way, gets to the crux of the matter in one of her ads for SarahPAC:

"Don't let them invalidate you!"

Which brings up the second obvious aspect about these issues: that they will be with us as long as there are political actors and business interests that have an interest in promoting and exploiting them for their own gain. If one scapegoat gets away, there will always be another to take its place. In fact, there is no shortage of replacements for the fading attack on gay rights.