Has the raging thunder of the religious right for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage turned into an empty threat?
“Just four months after an alliance of conservative Christians was threatening a churchgoer revolt unless President Bush championed an amendment banning same-sex marriage, members say they have been surprised and disappointed by what they call a tepid response from the pews,” according to a Sunday New York Times article.
“The opponents of gay marriage say they are puzzled over why such a volatile cultural issue is not spurring more rank-and-file conservative Christians to rise up in support of the amendment,” the article said.
In an interview with the newspaper, Matt Daniels, founder of the Alliance for Marriage, said, “Our side is basically asleep right now.”
Louis P. Shelton, chair of the Traditional Values Coalition, told the Times, “I don’t see any traction. The calls aren’t coming in and I am not sure why.”
The Southern Baptist Convention’s morality point-man, Richard Land, acknowledged that church members were not voicing their opposition to elected leaders as much as he had expected.
Land’s admission stands in stark contrast from what he said in an October 2003 press conference, where religious right leaders announced an all-out effort to pass a constitutional amendment to defend traditional marriage and block gay marriage.
He said that in 40 years of ministry he had never seen an issue “that has come even close to this issue in rousing the grassroots Southern Baptists and other evangelical Christians to mak[e] a stand.”
“They are coming to us out of the woodwork,” he said. “Churches that are not a regular part of our network … want us with them, and they want to be with us on this issue.”
At the same press conference, James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family, said that no issue like the battle over marriage has “come along in our lifetime to mobilize people of faith and people of a conservative conscience. And Congress will hear from them,” according to Baptist Press.
Land said, “Politicians who don’t know the radioactive nature of this issue now will by November of 2004.”
A few months later, Land asserted, “I have never seen anything that has energized and provoked our grass roots like this issue, including Roe v. Wade.”
So, what happened to the “energized” grass roots and the mobilization of people of faith? Where’s the outrage that religious right leaders claimed existed in churches and used to pressure President Bush into supporting a constitutional amendment? Why hasn’t the religious right succeeded in lobbying Congress to pass a constitutional amendment?
One answer is that religious-right leaders fabricated the degree of inflammation within churches. They misrepresented their constituency’s moral outrage to the White House, Congress and the media.
Another answer is that religious-right leaders are out of touch with their constituency. The pontificators of piety spoke for church members before they spoke to them about their real concerns. The affluent leadership assumed that their less-affluent followers were more panicked about gay marriage than good jobs, accessible and affordable health care and quality education.
A third answer is that rank-and-file church members think that gay marriage is morally wrong, but that amending the Constitution is not the right vehicle for social change. They hold the Constitution in high regard, believing that it should not be readily changed.
Whatever the reasons for the tepid response within conservative churches, the religious right finds itself with a serious credibility problem.
Robert Parham is BCE’s executive director.