The Religious Right's Sense of Siege Is Fueling a Resurgence

By Kaplan, Esther | The Nation, July 5, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Religious Right's Sense of Siege Is Fueling a Resurgence


Kaplan, Esther, The Nation


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."

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.

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