Onward Christian Soldiers
In their more candid moments, Christian right leaders acknowledge that gay activism isn't the only force undermining traditional ideas about marriage--indeed, they feel that they share the blame. Studies have shown that born-again Christians experience a higher divorce rate than both mainline Protestants and secular couples, and divorce rates are higher throughout the Southern Bible Belt than in the liberal Northeast. Like many gay-marriage opponents I spoke with, Peter Sprigg, senior policy director for the Family Research Council, expressed concern about the fallout from no-fault divorce and said, "We've created a culture where people enter a marriage without being ready to commit to a lifetime, and a lack of trust that marriage will succeed." Randall Balmer, a professor of religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University, and an evangelical Christian himself, believes that the Christian right's enthusiastic support for divorcé Ronald Reagan signaled a turning point, when conservative evangelicals stopped viewing divorce as a sin. "In the view of many evangelicals," he says, "we've been in full retreat for decades on the family, and we've got to draw the line." Their form of atonement is to fight gay marriage.
However deeply felt the battle against gay marriage is, it has its political usefulness, too. Mel White, co-founder of the Christian gay advocacy group Soul Force, sees the explosion of concern as more a political calculation than a moral one. White, a former theology professor, became close to several of the movement's figureheads in the 1970s when he was tapped by a publisher to ghostwrite biographies of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Billy Graham. He became their confidant--until he came out as gay. White says that while "they are sincere believers in their own propaganda" about marriage, most of these leaders are far more comfortable with gay people than they let on. After he founded Soul Force, White was invited to Falwell's Lynchburg, Virginia, headquarters to make his case against homophobia to Falwell and his staff; afterward, Falwell pulled White aside and said his publisher wanted to do a sequel to the book White had penned. "He asked if I didn't tell anybody, would I write it for him," White recalls. Falwell also mentioned that one of his senior staff members was a gay man who lived with his partner; Falwell said he had told the aide that "if they didn't put Jerry in a corner, he wouldn't put them in a corner." In White's view, the Christian right interest in gay marriage isn't, in the end, so different from President Bush's: It arouses the base.
"They are the expert on demographic studies," White says. "They know more about finding issues and creating mass mailings than anyone--at knowing what evokes a negative response and thus donations and recruits." He says movement leaders are always looking for "cobelligerency" issues, where people of faith and others can join together in common cause. In the 1970s it was anti-Communism, but when Communism fell, their research pointed to abortion and homosexuality.
As they began the campaign against gay marriage, he says, they found out that it was extremely effective. While most Americans don't support abstinence-only education and further restrictions on abortion access, opposition to gay marriage is a far less marginal idea. Whether or not the movement wins a federal marriage amendment, the battle itself holds out seductive possibilities for growth. "When you spend $1 million to send a mailing out, and you have to bring in $2 million or $3 million a week, as Robertson and Dobson have to do, then you have to have something that really works," says White. "And this works. Homosexuality is so unknown to so many people, and so terrifying to them, that this really struck a chord." In February the right's direct-mail guru, Richard Viguerie, told the New York Times that he was planning to send out 10 million appeals in the coming months for several social conservative organizations.
"They built their base on an alarmist message, so having their guy in the White House has not been great for fundraising," says Jean Hardisty, the founder of Political Research Associates, who has researched the far right for more than two decades. Indeed, movement patriarch Paul Weyrich has pointed out that the Christian right had not gained members during Bush's tenure until gay marriage began "turning things around." "The gay marriage issue has been a real gift for them," Hardisty says, "because it's revitalized their base, and revitalized their fundraising."
For both Bush and his Christian right followers, gay marriage offers the appealing possibility of attracting conservative Catholics and religious African-Americans to their cause. A May 2003 memo by Republican pollster Richard Wirthlin calls a gay marriage amendment "an ideal wedge issue," and this is as true for building membership as it is for attracting votes. Support for gay marriage is, not surprisingly, lowest among white evangelicals (12 percent), but it is lower among African-Americans (28 percent) than among any other racial group taken as a whole. When black ministers such as Boston's Eugene Rivers complained that gay activists had "exploited" the legacy of the civil rights movement to make their claim for marriage rights, leaders on the Christian right--despite records of opposing African-American civil rights--took their cue. The Family Research Council announced that the group "strongly opposes the hijacking of the civil rights movement by homosexual activists"; Concerned Women for America released a report titled "Homosexuals Hijack Civil Rights Bus: Claiming a 'Civil Right' to 'Marry' the Same Sex Demeans a Genuine Struggle for Liberty and Equality"; and the more recently formed Alliance for Marriage wooed the endorsements of such African-American institutions as the AME Church and the Church of God in Christ. A spokesperson for the Massachusetts Family Institute warmly recalled a prayer service against gay marriage on Boston Common led by white and Latino evangelicals, with a sound system paid for by the Catholic Church. "If you'd ever told me I'd witness something like this, I'd have said you were crazy," he says. "But this issue has created common cause."