If at First You Don't Succeed...

  • The paranoid style in American politics is not new. But it is certainly alive. Listen to some of the statements made last week in the U.S. Senate during the debate on whether to bar gays from marrying by changing the Constitution. Senator Rick Santorum compared the thousands of gay couples already legally married in the U.S. to the threat coming from terrorists. "Isn't that the ultimate homeland security, standing up and defending marriage?" he argued. Senator Wayne Allard, the main sponsor of the amendment, continued, "There is a master plan out there from those who want to destroy the institution of marriage." A master plan? To destroy an institution that gay couples merely want to join? In private, the rhetoric was even stronger. A leading religious-right supporter of the President, James Dobson, wrote to his followers earlier this month: "Barring a miracle, the family as it has been known for more than five millennia will crumble, presaging the fall of Western civilization itself." Gary Bauer, head of the Campaign for Working Families, wrote to his supporters: "If you still think homosexual 'marriage' won't affect you, think again. Your job may be at stake! ... Once the state approves of homosexual 'marriages,' the full weight of the law will be brought down against men and women of faith who believe in Judeo-Christian values."

    Yep. The gays are trying to get you fired as well. If the stakes are this high, you would think last week's humiliating defeat of the Federal Marriage Amendment would provoke despair among these advocates. But you would be wrong. Within minutes after losing the Senate vote, they were preparing to introduce a similar measure into the House, knowing full well that there is no hope of passage. But success at this juncture is not important. In fact, failure helps entrench the sense of alienation and anger that is already being stoked for political ends. The members of the religious right have therefore achieved what they set out to achieve. They have used this issue to galvanize parts of the evangelical base, just as President Bush's political mastermind, Karl Rove, intended. They have identified Republican Senators who defied them and will do all they can to get rid of them in future primaries. And in states like Florida and South Dakota, they think they have a chance to use the issue to tilt a few Senate races this fall. They plan to introduce as many as a dozen state constitutional amendments in swing states around the country. The Senate debate was merely an opportunity to get media oxygen for this effort. It is an integral part of the Bush re-election campaign.

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    But how real is the "threat"? Amid the hysteria, it's worth reassessing the facts. Gay couples have the provisional right to marry in only one state, and that state's voters will decide in 2006 whether that right will remain. Thirty-eight states have legislative bans on marriage rights for gays and on recognizing other states' gay marriages. The federal Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 underlines the right of states not to recognize marriages from other states. Four states have constitutional amendments barring marriage to gays; as many as a dozen have scheduled referendums to consider this. In Massachusetts, there has been no collapse of traditional marriages — just a heartwarming flurry of new ones as well. There is, in fact, no danger to traditional marriage at all — just a move to bring the last remaining citizens into its embrace. As I've argued for more than a decade, giving gay couples the right to marry is, when you think about it, a conservative measure, demanding of gays that they live up to standards of fidelity, responsibility and commitment never before asked of them. It is pro-family, uniting those gay family members with their siblings and parents in the unifying ritual of civil marriage. Why cannot marriage be defined by the virtues it includes rather than the people it excludes?

    In order to believe that this threatens heterosexual marriage, you have to believe it's a zero-sum game. If gay couples get married, then somehow straights will not. But why not both? Why cannot marriage bring us together rather than tear us apart? The answer, alas, is that this President has decided it will help him politically to tear us apart. His base is restless over government spending and Iraq, and this is a means to placate and energize it. If that means turning a tiny minority into a lethal threat to civilization, so be it. If that minority's sole crime is to seek to live in fidelity, uphold the family, support responsibility, then that also is beside the point. In this battle, the President has shown his true colors. He is a divider, not a uniter.