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Focus on politics: religious right leader James Dobson declares war over marriage, as election-year battle widens.

For a follower of the Prince of Peace, religious broadcaster James Dobson sure has a fondness for warfare imagery.

At an April 5 rally at New Hope Community Church in Clackamas, Ore., the evangelical Christian radio broadcaster proclaimed the debate over same-sex marriage as the climactic battle in America's culture war.

"This is the Waterloo, this is the Gettysburg," thundered Dobson, in his speech to 2,000 pastors and church leaders. "If lost, it will be like a mirror shattered. Once it's broken, it will not be repaired."

Dobson, founder of the tax-exempt Focus on the Family religious empire, is throwing down the political gauntlet. Although the Colorado Springs-based radio counselor has always dabbled heavily in political affairs behind the scenes, he has finally decided to go public with his agenda. According to The New York Times, Dobson has formed a new organization, Focus on the Family Action, whose 501(c)(4) tax status will allow for more political activities.

Dobson and a phalanx of Religious Right leaders have declared all-out political war this year, using same-sex marriage as their rallying point. They see the controversial subject as a wedge issue to recruit new grassroots troops, energize their base in an election-year and elect candidates who will implement their broad theocratic agenda across the board.

While Religious Right groups are continuing their battles on various issues in the courts and the state legislatures, their top goal today is the addition of a Federal Marriage Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The amendment 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."

Hearings on the proposal have been held in recent weeks in Congress. In the Senate, Sen. Wayne Allard's bill (S.J. Res. 30) is pending in committee. In the House, the same measure is being pushed by Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.). (H.J.Res. 56.)

Dobson and company are demanding passage, and they are using a broad range of tactics to achieve their goal. Religious Right leaders are issuing fervent appeals, organizing mass rallies and attempting to spur action by local churches. In addition to their white evangelical base, they are reaching out to black and Hispanic clergy as well, an audience that has resisted such appeals in the past.

In his April letter to donors, Dobson fired a fusillade of inflammatory rhetoric.

"Barring a miracle," wrote Dobson, "the family as it has been known for more than five millennia will crumble, presaging the fall of Western civilization itself.... For more than 40 years, the homosexual activist movement has sought to implement a master plan that has had as its centerpiece the utter destruction of the family"

Dobson denounced "arrogant, unaccountable and unelected judges" for upholding the rights of gay people, singling out moderate Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy as "one of the most dangerous men in America."

Dobson noted that he and more than 50 "pro-family leaders" had met in Washington, D.C., some seven times to lobby Congress on the issue. (Dobson was referring to the so-called "Arlington Group," a coalition of Religious Right and allied leaders who are pushing for a marriage amendment.)

The religious conservatives have a close but imperfect relationship with the White House. President George W. Bush, after months of lobbying by Religious Right leaders, finally endorsed the marriage amendment on Feb. 24.

On May 17, the day same-sex marriages became legal in Massachusetts, Bush reaffirmed that stance.

"The sacred institution of marriage should not be redefined by a few activist judges," said Bush, in a statement. "I called on the Congress to pass, and to send to the states for ratification, an amendment to our Constitution defining and protecting marriage as a union of a man and a woman as husband and wife. The need for that amendment is still urgent, and I repeat that call today."

The Bush administration is working on the issue quietly. When the Family Research Council, a Dobson spin-off group, held its Washington Briefing March 18-19, attendees were invited to the White House for an update.

Kristen Silverberg, deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy, told the crowd gathered in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building that Bush is working aggressively for the proposal put forth by Musgrave and Allard. She said the president had not made the amendment a campaign issue, but would address it as events move forward. She said Congress would have to hear from grassroots activists for it to pass.

At an earlier session, Dobson told the FRC briefing that he and FRC President Tony Perkins had met with Bush in the Oval Office to discuss the issue.

"I can tell you," said Dobson, "that his heart is in the right place.... I believe that he is genuinely pro-life and those other things. He is very uncomfortable with articulating them."

Bush's discomfort may stem as much from opinion polls as personal reticence. Public opinion surveys show the majority of voters opposes same-sex marriage. At the same time, large numbers of Americans, including many evangelicals, are wary of tampering with the Constitution.

Religious Right leaders seem surprised and dismayed that the same-sex marriage issue has not galvanized conservative Christians as they had hoped. Some 20,000 people turned out for a Dobson-backed "Mayday for Marriage" rally in Seattle May 1, but other projects have floundered.

At an Oct. 2 news conference in Washington, Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission said he had never seen in his "40 years of ministry any issue ... that has come even close to this issue in rousing the grassroots Southern Baptists and other evangelical Christians to make a stand."

But seven months later in a May 16 New York Times article, Land conceded that congregants had not voiced their opinions to elected officials as loudly as he had expected.

Two days afterward, Baptist Press News, the Southern Baptist denomination's news service, carried an article lamenting the lackluster response.

"Unless Washington feels the heat from a groundswell of protest, they won't see the light," said Land, "and marriage as we have known it in America will be further imperiled."

In a separate commentary for the news service, Land added, "I used to think the church was sleeping and that someday something big would happen, and we would all wake up and say, 'Stop it now!' I still hope it will happen, but the hour is very late and the crisis is great."

Religious Right leaders may run into a similar situation when they try to use the marriage issue to elect favored candidates for office. Last fall, Gary Bauer, head of American Values, said, "We pledge to defeat any politician that is AWOL or in doubt about the definition of marriage being between a man and a woman."

But Americans often react negatively when religious authorities try to impose their views through legislation or candidate endorsements. In addition, same-sex marriage may not loom that large at a time when the nation is mired in an intractable war in the Middle East, the budget deficit is climbing precipitously, gasoline has soared over $2 a gallon and the economy is stagnant.

Dobson has already run into problems at the polls. As part of his new aggressive political stance, he traveled to Pennsylvania to speak on behalf of U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey, a candidate seeking to defeat incumbent Republican Senator Arlen Specter in the GOP primary. Specter's moderate stances on abortion, gay rights and school vouchers have rankled Religious Right activists for years.

At an April 23 rally at the Lancaster Host Resort & Conference Center, Dobson told reporters, "I feel God wanted me to be here, and I am here."

He asked the throng of several hundred, "Are you tired of having Sen. Specter masquerade around this state as a conservative? Do you think 24 years is enough? Wouldn't it be incredible to send shivers down the backs of the liberals all over this country?"

In an endorsement letter distributed by Toomey, Dobson said Specter's defeat "would send a mighty signal that the days of waffling, devious, anti-family Republicans who are liberals in disguise are finally over."

But Pennsylvania Republicans apparently were unpersuaded. By a narrow 51-49 percent margin, Specter won the April 27 primary.

One voter said Dobson hurt Toomey's cause. In a letter to the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal, Gerald Baldwin wrote, "I would like to give you, what I believe, is a good reason why Specter won and Toomey lost: Dr. James Dobson." Citing Dobson's harsh rhetoric, Baldwin said Pennsylvania Republicans wanted the middle ground, not the "ultra-religious right."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State is working with a coalition of progressive groups to oppose the marriage amendment in Congress. AU says the proposal would grant constitutional preference to the marriage rites of the majority faiths, roll back civil fights protections and is unneeded to protect free exercise of religion.

Said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, "The Religious Right wants to wed church and state. Members of Congress should say, 'I don't,' not 'I do.'"
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Author:Conn, Joseph J.
Publication:Church & State
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2004
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