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Onward Christian Soldiers | The Nation

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Onward Christian Soldiers

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Phil Burress, president of the Ohio-based Citizens for Community Values, recalls that back in 1996, as he was busy coordinating the passage of state Defense of Marriage Acts, gay marriage still seemed "so far out there, so impossible, that the grassroots just didn't take it seriously."

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Esther Kaplan
Esther Kaplan is investigative editor at The Nation Institute, and author of With God on Their Side: George Bush and...

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As he tells it, all that changed for good last summer, when the Supreme Court's Lawrence v. Texas decision legalizing sodomy, and Canada's decision legalizing gay marriage, sent shock waves through the religious right. Justice Antonin Scalia's ferocious dissent was circulated widely, and his assertion that "state laws against bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality, and obscenity" were now all "called into question" stoked the movement's sense of siege. Suddenly, the antigay backlash kicked into high gear. Focus on the Family head James Dobson wrote to his supporters that the fight against gay marriage would be "our D-Day, or Gettysburg or Stalingrad."

As the battle over same-sex marriage played out in Massachusetts during the subsequent months, the Republican Party reacted cautiously--afraid to alienate its social conservative base but afraid, too, of a 1992-style backlash against a full-fledged culture war. The "family values" movement had no such qualms. As the possibility of gay marriage neared, and as American opposition to it swelled in the polls by year's end to nearly two-thirds, the issue caffeinated the movement's grassroots. "Now they're getting involved by the tens of thousands every day," says Burress. "I'm beginning to think this was a good thing for America, because it woke people up." To the thrill of movement leaders, their constituents at last began adopting an apocalyptic tone, too. Responding to the events in Massachusetts, Carol Schumacher of Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin, wrote a letter to the Focus on the Family newsletter, saying, "Soon all of the U.S. will become Sodom and Gomorrah."

The conservative Christian magazine World characterized the new outcry as not another "noisy ultimatum" from a family values movement known for noisy ultimatums but rather a display of "quiet resolve." Evidence of that resolve surfaced everywhere. The Traditional Values Coalition, a Beltway lobby group, began sending out 1.5 million mailings a month asking voters to push for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Focus on the Family, with its vast Christian media empire based in Colorado Springs, launched a media campaign and its president, Dobson, took a leave from his paid post (he remains as chairman) to free himself from not-for-profit constraints and fight gay marriage "on the political level." Randall Terry, the militant anti-choicer, sent out a national letter to Christian activists to rally them against "homosexual perversion." The man who once urged his Operation Rescue troops to throw themselves in the path of women seeking abortions was now saying the Lawrence decision "put our Republic in great danger.... America's survival hangs in the balance."

Family values leaders who didn't rally to the cause were purged: Ken Connor, who'd served as head of the Washington, DC-based Family Research Council since Gary Bauer stepped down to run for President in 2000, disagreed about redirecting the organization's resources to lobby for a federal marriage amendment. "There have been 1,700 proposed constitutional amendments," he told Christianity Today. "We have only added 26 to the Constitution. That tells you something." That was the wrong attitude. By mid-July Connor had been forced out, replaced by former Louisiana state representative Tony Perkins, whose claim to fame as a legislator was that he'd authored a "covenant marriage" law, the country's first, which created a binding biblical marriage in which couples relinquish the right to no-fault divorce.

Of course, Connor was right: A federal constitutional amendment is an uphill battle at best. Most Americans may oppose gay marriage, but support for an amendment hovers at a politically risky 50 percent. After several months of furious organizing, Dobson recently complained, only thirty senators have endorsed the amendment, and other senators "don't want to talk with us, they don't want to meet with us, because they're scared of this issue." That's why, a week after Massachusetts began issuing same-sex marriage licenses, Focus on the Family, along with the Family Research Council and the National Association of Evangelicals, organized a live church service, dubbed "The Battle for Marriage," simulcast to 500 Christian congregations, to prepare their troops for a major fight.

At the event, hosted by the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, speaker after speaker tapped into the deepest wellsprings of the movement's opposition to gay marriage: the veneration of heterosexual marriage and family as a God-sanctioned ideal, whose primal image is Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden; the condemnation of homosexuality as unnatural and sinful, traced back to Leviticus; and the belief that America is, or should be, in some fundamental sense, a Christian nation, whose laws and social structures spring from, or at least don't openly contradict, Christian scripture. Some speakers tried to offer up Capitol Hill-ready talking points--about the effects of same-sex marriage on childrearing, public school curriculums and divorce and cohabitation rates--and hawked literature, such as Focus on the Family's Marriage Under Fire, with its eleven focus-group-tested arguments against same-sex marriage. But those efforts fell flat. It was what Dobson called "spiritual concerns," the deep conviction that marriage is on the side of God and homosexuality on the side of sin, that animated the crowd.

When Dobson proclaimed that marriage between a man and a woman "came straight from the creator himself," he received an ovation. And when Bishop Wellington Boone, of the Fellowship of International Churches, the only African-American on the program, proclaimed, "If God says in Leviticus for mankind to lie with mankind and womankind with womankind...is an abomination, I'm going to tell you, I'm in agreement with God!... We're standing with God on this one!" the crowd was on its feet. When I asked Stephen Crampton, chief counsel for the Center for Law and Policy at the Tupelo, Mississippi-based American Family Association, what was a more central concern, the weakening of "traditional marriage" or the normalization of gay sexuality, he said, "It may be unfair to even separate the two."

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."

Richard Land, a lobbyist with the Southern Baptist Convention, has argued that "politicians who don't know the radioactive nature of this issue now will by November of 2004." This is a widely held belief on the right. A February 2004 Pew Research Center survey hints at the political calculus: Among the one-third of Americans who support gay marriage, it's not a deciding issue; only 6 percent would refuse to vote for a candidate who opposed gay marriage. But among the two-thirds of Americans who oppose gay marriage, Pew found the issue had surpassed abortion and gun control as a "make-or-break voting issue": 34 percent would refuse to support a political candidate who did not share their view, a number that jumps to 55 percent among evangelical Christians. Peter LaBarbera, then on the staff of Concerned Women for America, issued a white paper in November 2002 arguing that races for governor, Congress and Senate in Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Maryland and Minnesota had been decided in part on the question of gay marriage and gay civil rights--and that in each case, "pro-family" candidates were victorious. (Democratic analysts cite the governor's race in Oregon and the recall election in California as counterexamples, where pro-gay candidates came out on top.) This fall, anti-gay forces hope to pull off a repeat of their successes in 2002.

The anti-gay-marriage movement in Massachusetts has produced more than a dozen candidates who will challenge state Democratic lawmakers on their support for gay marriage, many with strong backing from Governor Mitt Romney. Behind the antigay candidates, says John Marble of the National Stonewall Democrats, is a formidable fundraising machine that is offering the most serious challenge to Massachusetts Democrats in more than a decade. State Democratic leaders say they're planning to spend five times more than they've ever spent on local races to repel the effort. Ron Crews, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, just took a leave from his post to make a quixotic run for Congress against pro-gay Democrat Jim McGovern, and Crews's acting successor, Kris Mineau, is convinced that gay marriage is a "bellwether issue." Mineau points to a special election in March, where Republican Scott Brown, running on his opposition to gay marriage, beat the aide of Democratic, openly gay incumbent Cheryl Jacques for a state legislative seat, in a race described by the Boston Globe as a test of the electoral power of the issue. Mike Gabbard, who led the fight against gay marriage in Hawaii, has thrown his hat into a Congressional race there, and Tom Coburn, a former Congressman who has served on the board of the Family Research Council, is running for US Senate in Oklahoma on an anti-gay marriage plank with James Dobson's help. Mineau says he plans to run voter registration drives and put out voter guides, while Burress reports that churches across the country are chomping at the bit to get more directly involved in politics, angling for legislation that would allow ministers to endorse candidates from the pulpit.

Burress is involved right now in a signature drive to put a constitutional amendment on the Ohio ballot codifying marriage as between one man and one woman. According to Marble, six such initiatives are already on state ballots (in Georgia, Mississippi, Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma and Utah), and seven more--some in such swing states as Oregon and Ohio--are in the offing. Since these initiatives aren't bound by campaign-finance rules, deep-pocketed right-wing funders could pour millions into voter mobilization drives in these states, as long as they target the ballot initiatives. And this could provide some long coattails for Christian right candidates, including Coburn and George W. Bush.

Marble, a former Christian right activist himself, sees the 2004 elections as "a last gasp" for the movement against gay marriage. With the clock ticking, says Marble, the Christian right will throw everything they have into 2004, "and they are going to get something out of it." It remains to be seen whether that means actual electoral and legislative success in key states, or the more limited victory of a religious right that is re-infused with energy yet isolated from the American mainstream. A Gallup poll, conducted in early May, found that opposition to gay marriage had already slipped to 55 percent, from 65 percent in December. And polls have consistently shown an age gap, with gay marriage far more widely accepted by the young. "Up to this point, we've had antigay politicians talk about the threat of gay marriage, the worst-case nightmare scenario," Marble says. "By the next election, they'll have to deal with the reality, and people will see that the reality of gay marriage is not so scary at all."

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