For Religious Right leaders, January was the best of times and the worst of times.
Conservative religious forces had staunchly backed the re-election of President George W. Bush, and their man, a born-again Christian with a right-wing political agenda, was returning to the White House in triumph.
But the president’s second inaugural festivities had barely wound down when reports surfaced in the media about a group of leading religious conservatives who were furious that Bush was seemingly ignoring a major part of their agenda.
These leaders were incensed over the president’s incessant promotion of a controversial plan to overhaul the Social Security system and his lack of work on behalf of a Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA), a constitutional revision that would ban gay marriage in America.
Days before his second inauguration, Bush, who aggressively courted the Religious Right vote, revealed to reporters his top priorities for his second term. The FMA was not on the list. Indeed, during the interview aboard Air Force One, Bush said “nothing will happen” anytime soon on the amendment for lack of support in the Senate.
Throughout 2004, James Dobson of Focus on the Family, TV preacher Jerry Falwell and a host of other Religious Right honchos, working in a coalition called the Arlington Group, led the drive for passage of anti-gay constitutional amendments. The Arlington group, not surprisingly, was ticked off at the president’s comments aboard Air Force One and quickly fired off a letter to Bush’s top political adviser Karl Rove. They bemoaned his comments and warned that if the president wanted their support with the controversial campaign to change the Social Security system, he had better get serious about ensuring passage of the FMA.
“We couldn’t help but notice the contrast between how the president is approaching the difficult issue of Social Security privatization where the public is deeply divided and the marriage issue where public opinion is overwhelmingly on his side,” the Jan. 18 letter stated. “Is he prepared to spend significant political capital on privatization but reluctant to devote the same energy to preserving traditional marriage?”
The letter, which The New York Times revealed in a Jan. 25 article, continued, “When the administration adopts a defeatist attitude on an issue that is at the top of our agenda, it becomes impossible for us to unite our movement on an issue such as Social Security privatization where there are already deep misgivings.”
If Bush were to spend his political capital fighting for partial privatization of Social Security and expend none of his influence on pushing the marriage amendment, the Arlington Group maintained that outrage would be fostered in the “countless voters who stood with [Bush] just a few weeks ago, including an unprecedented number of African-Americans, Latinos and Catholics who broke with tradition and supported the president solely because of the issue.”
During the president’s in-air interview, he devoted a lot of his answers to the American-led war in Iraq and on the domestic front, he argued that Social Security is in crisis and needs a major overhaul. It took some prodding from reporters to get Bush to discuss the marriage amendment. The FMA, which stalled in the last Congress, would declare: “Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution, nor the constitution of any State, shall be construed to require that marriage or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon any union other than the union of a man and a woman.”
When asked if he would “expend any political capital” to push for the amendment, Bush responded by noting that many in the Senate believed a federal statute called the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which was signed into law by former President Bill Clinton, was enough to ensure that gay Americans could not be legally married. That federal law says that no state is bound to recognize gay marriages sanctioned in other states or localities.
Some law professors and attorneys argue, however, that the law could be invalidated by a federal court as violation of the Constitution’s “full, faith and credit” clause, which holds that acts of one state must be recognized as legal in other states.
Pressed further, The Washington Post asked Bush if he planned to use “the bully pulpit” to press for the FMA.
“The point is, is that senators have made it clear that so long as DOMA is deemed constitutional, nothing will happen,” Bush said. “I’d take their admonition seriously.”
But did the president still want to see the constitutional amendment passed, The Post asked.
“Well, until that changes [DOMA’s constitutionality], nothing will happen in the Senate,” Bush said. “Do you see what I’m saying?”
Religious Right activists believed they knew what Bush was saying, and many of them were not impressed; even inaugural celebrations laden with religiosity could not ease their anger. (Even conservative stalwart Peggy Noonan criticized the president for giving an inaugural address where “God was invoked relentlessly.”)
The Washington Times, a conservative daily and frequent cheerleader of Bush policies, picked up on the Religious Right’s disappointment during a privately sponsored inaugural celebration that was held exclusively for the president’s evangelical Christian backers. According to a Jan. 26 report, “many of the 800-plus in attendance were tepid – or worse – in their assessments of the start of President Bush’s second term.”
The newspaper attributed the supporters’ lackadaisical assessments to the president’s perceived foot-dragging on the marriage amendment.
For example, the Times described Gary Bauer, a close working partner of Dobson’s and head of the American Values Committee, as being “at best lukewarm” about the start of Bush’s second term.
Bauer, who is also a member of the Arlington Group, reiterated his disappointment with Bush’s words in an e-mail sent to supporters of his American Values Committee.
“Conservative hearts sank ten days ago when President Bush, in a Washington Post interview, expressed a defeatist tone on the chances of passing a federal marriage amendment,” Bauer wrote in his Jan. 26 e-mail. “Pro-family leaders were so upset that we sent a two-page letter to Karl Rove pointing out that the preservation of normal marriage between a man and a woman is central to the future of our nation.”
White House staffers tried to recast Bush’s comments to assuage the Religious Right leaders. Trent Duffy, a Bush spokesman, told The New York Times that the president “remains very committed to a marriage amendment.”
At a Jan. 25 press briefing, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, when asked about Bush’s comments, said the president has been “clear” in his support of the amendment and that it “is a priority.”
But on the same day in a meeting at the White House with African-American religious and community leaders, Bush repeated the stance made aboard Air Force One.
According to The Washington Post, several of the participants had asked Bush about the FMA, “but Bush demurred, explaining that the issue is a non-starter in Congress.” One of the participants told the Post the president “was noncommittal on it because he’s got other priorities.” That same participant also noted that Bush spent a significant portion of time encouraging support for his plan to overhaul Social Security.
There is evidence, however, that the Religious Right’s howling over Bush’s comments is working.
In his Feb. 2 State of the Union Address, Bush reiterated his support for the marriage amendment.
“Because marriage is a sacred institution and the foundation of society, it should not be re-defined by activist judges,” Bush said. “For the good of families, children and society, I support a constitutional amendment to protect the institution of marriage.”
Bush’s nod to his support of the FMA brought quick, joyous comments from some in the Arlington Group. Dobson, in his organization’s online magazine, Citizenlink, gushed over the president’s address, saying he “delivered a powerful, moving speech this evening, speaking to the most important issues of the day with forcefulness and confident cadence.” Only days, later, Dobson’s Citizenlink included a special Web page devoted to promoting Bush’s plans “to fix Social Security.”
The day after Bush’s address, Bauer issued another letter to his American Values “friends and supporters,” this one not nearly as dour as the one he issued on Jan. 26. Indeed, this time Bauer was almost giddy, proclaiming that, “Pro-family conservatives had a lot to cheer about last night as President Bush strongly reiterated his commitment to the federal marriage protection amendment and the culture of life, and to restoring balance to our federal courts.”
And in early February, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service, BP News, published a three-part series pumping Bush’s call for partial privatization of the Social Security System.
Douglas Barker, a Baptist pastor in Alexandria, Va., writing the series for BP News, argued that Social Security had weakened or undermined churches’ roles in helping the poor and elderly. Barker insisted that it is “disturbing” that so many Christian leaders, citing scripture, supported the formation of Social Security when it began in the ’30s.
“Yes, government has a role in protecting its citizens, but it should never come at the expense of the church abdicating its biblically mandated role,” Barker wrote Feb. 9.
Any change to the Social Security system could produce serious effects for lots of Americans, especially the elderly.
But the Religious Right leaders of the Arlington Group are playing hardball politics and have cast aside concerns about the economic well-being of citizens reliant on Social Security in order to score a big political victory – passage of a constitutional amendment to prevent legal recognition of gay marriage.
The Arlington Group has invested a lot of time, energy and money into stifling gay rights. The coalition launched the efforts to put anti-gay marriage initiatives on the 2004 ballots in eleven states, where all were successful. Religious Right leaders hoped the initiatives would go a long way in getting their supporters to the voting booths on Election Day.
Paul Weyrich, a member of the Arlington Group and head of the Free Congress Foundation, said those state ballot initiative victories had “encouraged” the coalition to stay politically focused.
“For now, the Arlington Group is the one bright spot in the body politick,” Weyrich declared in a Dec. 3 column. “It is a group of men and women, the leaders of the values voters, who seek to stem the tide of cultural decline of this once great nation.”
Weyrich foreshowed the coalition’s political edge by adding that it was comprised of “reasonable” people, “yet they don’t believe in compromise when compromise is not absolutely required.”
The battle against gay marriage cannot include compromise, not for the leaders of the Arlington Group. And the leaders won’t be satisfied until Congress has altered the Constitution to ensure gay marriages cannot be recognized in the country.
In the 108th Congress, the FMA stalled in both the Senate and the House. But Bush, after much pressure from the Arlington Group, especially Dobson and the Southern Baptist Convention’s Richard Land, endorsed the FMA in early 2004 and reiterated his support for the amendment during his campaign for re-election.
The Religious Right expects the president to use much of his political capital to get a marriage amendment through the 109th Congress.
Sadie Fields, head of the Georgia Christian Coalition, told The Washington Times on Jan. 26 that she expects Bush to prod federal lawmakers into bringing the FMA up for a vote.
“For the president to say we don’t have the votes raises the question: ‘Don’t we have a majority of Republicans in the Senate?’” Fields told the newspaper. “That’s where presidential leadership comes in.”
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, working in a coalition of progressive public-interest groups, has opposed the FMA, arguing that the Constitution should not be a tool to limit the rights of Americans.
In letters sent last year to lawmakers in both chambers, Americans United also argued that the anti-gay marriage amendment should be rejected because it would grant constitutional preference to the marriage rites of the majority faiths and was not needed to protect religious liberty.
Despite the Religious Right’s rumblings over Bush’s comments on the fate of the FMA in the new Congress, the measure’s passage should not be considered dead.
Only days after the Arlington Group sent its letter to the White House, Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) re-introduced the marriage amendment. Allard noted that S. J. Res. 1 is being co-sponsored by over 20 senators, including the Majority Leader Sen. Bill First, R-Tenn.
“This legislation is being introduced to protect and defend traditional marriage,” Allard said in a press statement announcing his action. “We must not stand still when the courts are being used to challenge and distort civilization’s oldest, most venerable social institution.”
Lynn said he expects Religious Right heavyweights, such as Dobson, to continue playing hardball politics to get their way.
“Whether the president gets involved at a high-profile level is yet to be known,” Lynn said. “The extent and nature of his involvement, however, should give us an idea of the influence the Religious Right will likely hold over the White House for at least these next couple of years.”