Foes Confounded by Limited Outcry Against Gay Marriage
By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 20, 2004; Page A03
He has preached for months that gay marriage could be the downfall of Western civilization, but the Rev. Gary F. Smith is worried that the message is not getting across to his flock at the Church of the Nazarene in Leesburg.
"There's quite a bit of lethargy in the pews," he said. "By and large, it's a lay-down-and-roll-over-and-play-dead attitude."
Across the country, evangelical Christians are voicing frustration and puzzlement that there has not been more of a political outcry since May 17, when Massachusetts became the first state to issue same-sex marriage licenses.
Evangelical leaders had predicted that a chorus of righteous anger would rise up out of churches from coast to coast and overwhelm Congress with letters, e-mails and phone calls in support of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
But that has not happened.
"Standing on Capitol Hill listening, you don't hear anything," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, one of the country's most vigorous Christian advocacy groups.
Perkins and other evangelical leaders contend that the outrage is out there. They say it has not been felt in Washington because defenders of traditional marriage are still in shock, or are focused on winning state constitutional amendments against same-sex marriage, or are distracted by the war in Iraq and other issues.
But a few skeptics on the Christian right, as well as many on the Christian left, are beginning to conclude that there is more fervor for a constitutional amendment in America's pulpits than in its pews. And politicians of both parties say the issue has had less grass-roots sizzle than they had expected.
"So far, it's really been a top-down issue," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), a strong opponent of gay marriage who has used his chairmanship of a Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution to hold three hearings on the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment.
Though he is convinced that gay marriage is going to be a "huge" issue, Cornyn said, "what it's going to take is some more bottom-up concern about whether people are losing control of their lives."
Senate Republican leaders said last week that they plan to bring the amendment to a vote in mid-July, a move that evangelicals hope will energize supporters around the country even though the amendment appears headed for defeat. Despite President Bush's endorsement, it is at least 15 votes short of the 67 needed for passage in the Senate, congressional staffers said.
In the first electoral test of the issue's currency with voters, Democrat Stephanie Herseth narrowly won a special election on June 1 for South Dakota's lone congressional seat. Her opponent, Republican Larry Diedrich, tried to make gay marriage a major issue but was "unable to pin [Herseth] down," said Mark Berg, Diedrich's campaign manager.
Herseth's spokesman, Russ Levsen, said the freshman lawmaker opposes gay marriage but favors civil unions and would support a narrowly drawn constitutional amendment that makes the distinction. "She gave sort of a nuanced answer, and her opponent claimed she was waffling, but his argument didn't resonate with the voters," Levsen said.
Democratic campaign consultant Bob Doyle said that, like Herseth, most of the Democratic candidates in this year's tight congressional races in the South and Midwest "have taken this issue off the table" by supporting a constitutional amendment. In the presidential race, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the Democratic challenger, has said that he opposes gay marriage but does not favor a constitutional amendment.
Many evangelicals believe that gay marriage has the potential to galvanize their community as no other issue would, including abortion. But as a "vehicle for mobilization," the push for a constitutional ban has three problems, said John C. Green, a professor at the University of Akron who studies evangelicals and politics.
First, it runs counter to many conservatives' preference for resolving issues at the state level. Second, it lacks urgency because 39 states have passed laws against same-sex marriage and "are not likely to have gay marriages anytime soon," Green said.
And, finally, he said, "as much as evangelicals and other Christians are bothered by gay marriage, it may not be their top priority. Like everybody else, they worry about Iraq and the economy."
In an effort to rouse the grass roots, more than 700 churches showed a 90-minute medley of sermons by famous evangelists, called "The Battle for Marriage," in a May 23 satellite television broadcast.
Organizers said that hundreds of people turned out for the Sunday evening broadcast in some churches, but that attendance was light in many. "It was pretty disappointing," said Smith, who estimated that 35 of his 200 Leesburg congregants showed up. "I think people are just in the dark."
At the First Christian Church of Chicago, which describes itself as a nondenominational, conservative, Bible-based congregation, Tena Raglin, a former high schoolteacher, said she just started paying attention to gay marriage in the past few weeks. Now, she sees it as the second most important issue facing the country, after the war in Iraq.
But most of her fellow Christians still do not view gay marriage as a personal threat, Raglin said. "Because we're talking about a small minority of people, people don't think it's a big deal; they don't think it affects them."
Diana Buechsenschuetc, secretary of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Decatur, Ill., which belongs to the conservative Missouri Synod, said that gay marriage "does worry me" but that the war and the economy are more important. "In this area, it's really the economy," Buechsenschuetc, said.
Her pastor, the Rev. Wray Offermann, said gay marriage is one of the prime concerns of the congregation. But he said "there's no doubt" his parishioners do not take it as seriously as he does. "They, too, are impacted by the general permissiveness of our society," he said.
Nationally, polls indicate that Americans oppose gay marriage by 2 to 1, but the public is evenly split on whether to amend the U.S. Constitution or leave the decision to each state.
Pew Research Center pollster Michael Dimock said it is clear from the surveys that gay marriage is an issue of great intensity to a small number of people, mainly opponents. But, he said, "I have a sneaking suspicion that this is not an issue many people want to stay worked up about. . . . You don't hear Bush talking about it very often. He talks about it once every few months, then drops it. That may be reflective of what they've learned about how much people want to hear about this."
Marvin Olasky, editor of World, the largest evangelical newsmagazine, said he is not sure that his 135,000 subscribers want to read much about it, either. "We've run three Iraq covers in a row," he said. "We've had some coverage of it [same-sex marriage], but it's not our foremost concern."
George Barna, an evangelical Christian minister whose Ventura, Calif., consulting firm specializes in the analysis of religious and cultural trends, said it is not surprising that "there is anger but no action" over gay marriage among churchgoers. According to his polling, evangelicals and other born-again Christians make up 38 percent of the adult population, but only 9 percent of them hold a "biblical worldview," including the belief that the Bible is "totally accurate" in all its teachings.
"Because most churchgoing people do not have a biblical worldview, they're not convinced there is a right position on this issue; and because most would contend it does not affect them personally, they're not as likely to get worked up about it as evangelical leaders would hope," Barna said.
The Rev. Jim Wallis, head of Call to Renewal, a coalition of religious groups devoted to fighting poverty, said he believes the Christian right is "out of touch" with most Christians' concerns. "Do we really think that Jesus's primary concern in this election year would be a marriage amendment? With the poverty rate rising, with one in six of all U.S. children and one in three children of color living below the poverty line, with more than a billion people around the world living on less than $1 a day?" Wallis asked.
"The truth is, the religious right is not even a majority among evangelicals, but they have very loud voices that presume to speak for a lot more people than they really do," he said.
But the Rev. Richard Land, president of the public policy arm of the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention, said he believes that many Americans "intuitively understand" that gay marriage "endangers the bedrock of our society." He pointed to rallies for traditional marriage that have drawn huge crowds -- 20,000 people in Seattle, 8,000 in Phoenix, 2,000 in San Jose -- as evidence that there is a great deal of activity at the state and local levels. "For me, it's a puzzlement why it has not yet bubbled up to Washington," Land said.
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a leading religious conservative in Congress, agreed that "most of the action to date has been on the state level." While gay marriage has been the number one subject of phone calls to his office in the past month, he said, the volume has been lower than on past controversies, such as the 1996 government shutdown, the President Clinton impeachment, immigration reform, the authorization for the Iraq war and the ban on a late-term abortion procedure.
"The faith community is . . . not focused on D.C. yet. It's going to," he said. "When we get a constitutional amendment up for a vote, it will be."
Special correspondent Kari Lydersen in Chicago contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company