If they're going to scream at us anyway," said Janet Folger of the fledgling organization Faith2Action, "we might as well give them something to scream about."
And that was the consensus as a group of two dozen evangelical and conservative leaders gathered in Washington last week to kick off formally a do-or-die campaign to nip in the bud any further efforts to allow homosexual marriage in the United States.
The unanimity may have been unprecedented for this group. Veteran political activist Paul Weyrich said he had never seen such urgency, such energy, and such accord among an assemblage of folks known for having streaks of independence and separate agendas. Focus on the Family was there in force, as were the Southern Baptists, Family Research Council, and Empower America. Eagle Forum surprised no one by taking a firm position, but National Religious Broadcasters cast its vote just as solidly. American Family Association and Concerned Women for America were at the center of things.
There were good reasons for this particular group to fall into factions before it ever got together. They were proposing a political lobbying effort for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. No one has successfully pulled that off in the last two generations. Such an assignment is all but guaranteed to divide before it unites. And the ultimate unity of this group is by no means guaranteed. But last week, the glue held.
The big threat in the early going is the issue that tends to split every political effort: How much should we go for?
Everyone agreed with the group's new slogan: "Marriage: One man and one woman." That much was simple, and will be at the core of an Oct. 12-18 week-long media blitz to carry the message to all 50 million (or so) evangelicals in the United States. Radio and TV commercial spots, talk-show emphasis, sermons, and bumper stickers will all be enlisted to let the nation know that the recent tolerance by the federal judiciary for the homosexual agenda will not go unchallenged.
If that were all the group wanted, the task-even to amend the Constitution-might not be so hard. Recent polls show the American public not nearly as permissive on the homosexual marriage issue as are the mainstream media and the educational elite. A specific proposal for a Constitutional amendment has gained the formal backing of as many as 100 members of Congress, and Republican leaders have even welcomed the proposal as a possibly good wedge issue to unseat a few Democrats in the 2004 election. Even if the amendment process falters, some politicos reason, it gives an opportunity for them to get on the right side of an issue that will activate their political base.
That much wasn't so hard last week.
The tougher question has to do with so-called "civil unions." While it's true that much of the homosexual community very much wants the formal and legal right to marry, they're already well on the road to securing 90 percent of the benefits of marriage in many different contexts and settings through state and local legislation and regulations. So why, argue many of the backers of the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment, go to all the bother of prohibiting homosexual marriage if the amendment will still allow the same thing, but by a different name?
The problem is that while passage of the FMA in its softer form is seen as just barely possible, almost no one thinks that-humanly speaking-a revised and toughened version has any political chance at all. A cautious White House was said to be standing by in the wings with a version even lighter than the bill now before Congress. And if the broader form has attracted some 100 backers in the current Congress, most observers agree that numbers might shrink by half if the amendment also includes prohibition of civil unions.
But something else might shrink by a lot more than half if the proposal doesn't include a prohibition on civil unions. Staunch backers of the amendment say there's no point trying to rally the troops in the trenches to bring about popular political pressure unless the amendment actually delivers the goods. "Our people simply won't be rallied by a lesser effort," says Michael Farris of the Home School Legal Defense Association.
Will they be rallied by the stauncher version? The sense among the leaders gathered last week was that they will. "We might as well say what we really want," William Bennett said, acknowledging his doubts about the political prospects but simultaneously encouraging the group to go for it. "We don't want homosexual marriage-but we also don't want faux marriage."
"If we can't win the whole thing," said Jerry Falwell, "we ought to just forget it. Let's batten the hatches and wait for the bell to sound for our society."
Specific language for the tougher version is still being worked out by the experts, and will be proposed soon. Then, almost nobody expects that tougher version to survive the watering-down process Congress is sure to impose. But at least no one in this group will have to say in the end: "I just wish we had tried for a little more."