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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."

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