Most Americans wouldn’t recognize Dr. Donald Wildmon if they bumped into him at a Tupelo, Mississippi supermarket. In conservative Christian evangelical circles, however, when Wildmon talks, people listen. Last week, the founder of the American Family Association, was talking about what he’s been talking about for more than three decades; “homosexuals” and the “culture wars”—only this time he said something startling.
The “culture wars” will be irrevocably lost, said Wildmon, if Proposition 8 (the “California Marriage Protection Act“ which states that “Only a marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California”) loses on November 4.
“If we lose California, if they defeat the marriage amendment, I’m afraid that the culture war is over and Christians have lost,” said Wildmon, “I’ve never said that publicly until now—but that’s just the reality of the fact.”
Wildmon pointed out that If the “homosexuals” were “able to defeat the marriage amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, then the culture war is over and we’ve lost—and gradually, secularism will replace Christianity as the foundation of our society.”
“California is a big dam, holding back the flood—and if you take down the dam in California, it’s going to flood 49 other states,” Wildmon maintained. “It will destroy marriage as it has been known for thousands of years [For an opposing view from a historian of the family see Stephanie Coontz's "Traditional" Marriage or a Break with Tradition?—ed.], and with that the cultural decline that normally would follow.”
But just as Wildmon is no doubt deeply concerned about Proposition 8, and is laying out the worst case scenario for his supporters in the apocalyptic vernacular, rest easy America; the “culture wars,” to paraphrase New York Yankee philosopher/catcher Yogi Berra, ain’t over til’ they're over. And if Prop. 8 were to be defeated, don’t expect Wildmon’s culture warriors to pack their bags for safer climes. Nevertheless, this doomsday proclamation is bound to be seen by observers of the evangelical movement as a yet another in a series of signs of the diminishing power of the religious right.
As one prong in his organizing strategy, Wildmon has turned to the Arlington Group, a coalition of religious and secular conservative leaders with close ties to the Republican Party that he, along with Paul Weyrich—widely considered the “Godfather” of the New Right—founded in 2002. The Arlington Group is “encourag[ing] US pastors to set aside one Sunday in September to focus on the battle over marriage taking place in California,” OneNewsNow, a news service sponsored by Wildmon’s AFA, recently reported.
Wildmon, Perkins and the entire Arlington Group gang definitely have their work cut our for them in California. According to the most recent Field Poll, Proposition 8 is opposed by 51 percent of likely voters with 42 percent in favor. “Starting out behind is usually an ominous sign for a proposition,” Mark DiCamillo, director of the nonpartisan Field Poll, said. “Over 90 percent of propositions that start out behind get taken down.” The new poll—conducted July 8 through July 14, based on surveys with 672 likely voters and has a margin of error of 3.9 percentage points—found that Republicans support the initiative 68 percent to 27 percent while Democrats oppose it 63 percent to 30 percent. Nonpartisan and minor-party members came in at 66 percent opposed to 27 percent in support.
Wildmon’s American Family Association is one of the oldest and most activist-oriented of conservative Christian operations. It recently launched a boycott of McDonalds—one of many corporate boycotts it has organized in the past—because the fast food giant has donated money in support of the “homosexual agenda.” According to OneNewsNow, McDonald’s “donated $20,000 to the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, in exchange for membership and a seat on the group’s board of directors.”
Lest you think that the work of the AFA will fade away when Wildmon, one of the conservative evangelicals’ old guard, passes from the scene, think again. The Wildmons, like the Falwells and the Robertsons, are movement families, with movement sons in prominent positions.
While Wildmon may be old school, the American Family Association, founded in 1977 as the National Federation for Decency, has taken great pains to operate in the twenty-first century in savvy and technologically sophisticated ways. The organization has an annual budget exceeding $15 million and net assets of more than $30 million; it feeds programming to nearly 200 radio stations, employs about 100 at its home-base, has fully embraced the Internet, and runs one of the most sophisticated communications networks amongst the Christian right organizations.
The organization also operates the Center for Law & Policy, a conservative legal operation, American Family Radio, American Family News Network’s OneNewsNow (formerly Agape Press), and a legislative action arm, AFA Action.
The re-birth of anti-same-sex marriage initiatives
Anti-same-sex marriage initiatives thought to be buried in the wake of voters concern over the Iraq War, a crumbling economy, rising gas prices, and a record number of housing foreclosures, are making a comeback.
In 2004 Team Bush, in concert with a host of conservative Christian evangelical leaders, made anti-gay marriage initiatives the centerpiece of their campaign to drive evangelical voters to the polls to vote for Bush and fellow Republicans candidates. This time around many political observers have posited that the climate isn’t as volatile and gay marriage would not be as significant an issue for voters.
In stating their opposition to same-sex marriage, Christian conservatives are also framing the issue as an all-out attack on religious freedom. On July 10, 2008, the Washington, DC-based lobbying group, the Family Research Council, hosted a panel discussion “on the California Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage and its impact on First Amendment rights and religious liberty protections.”
“Homosexual rights are trampling freedom of religion, of speech and of association,” Michael J. McManus, President and Co-Chair of “Marriage Savers,“ recently wrote. “Homosexuals have a right to live any way they wish, but they do not have the right to redefine marriage for the whole culture.”
McManus closed his column by writing: “The Family Research Council is seeking gifts to counter this propaganda, and can double any contribution, thanks to a $250,000 Matching Grant. I rarely endorse funding appeals, but do in this instance (You may remember McManus from reports in January 2005 which revealed that he received $10,000 as a subcontractor with the Department of Health and Human Services for work supporting the Bush Administration’s Community Healthy Marriage Initiative while writing laudatory columns about it).
“What is at stake in the California marriage debate now taking place?” asked Maggie Gallagher, president of the National Organization for Marriage, which helped qualify Proposition 8 for the ballot, in a recent piece for the National Review. “The meaning of marriage, the idea of judicial restraint, and the official harassment and repression (by our own government) of traditional religious faiths.” (Gallagher, a long-time marriage advocate, also received money—without disclosing it—from the Department of Health and Human Services to help promote the President’s “Healthy Marriages Initiative“.)
In June, the Pew Research Center For The People and The Press found that “The balance of public opinion regarding gay marriage is more positive now than it was during the 2004 campaign.” However, despite the change in public opinion, “Republicans and white evangelical Protestants, in particular, remain staunchly opposed to allowing gays and lesbians to marry, and increasing numbers of Republicans and white evangelicals say that gay marriage will be very important in their voting decisions.”
A Pew Research Center survey conducted after the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage found that 49% of Americans said they oppose allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, while 38% favored gay marriages. In July 2004, 56% opposed gay marriage, compared with 32% who supported legal marriages between gays and lesbians.
Although the times may be changing, a new national survey commissioned by Tony Perkins’ Family Research Council may be the bearer of good news for Wildmon and company. The survey found that anti-same-sex marriage initiatives—on the ballots in three states this fall—may still have pull at the polls.
According FRC’s “National Omnibus Study” of 800 likely voters, conducted over June 25, 26 and 29, “marriage protection amendments” on the November ballot in California, Florida, and Arizona are still firing up evangelical voters. An FRC press release issued on July 10, trumpeted the finding that anti-same-sex marriage initiatives have “the potential for significant political impact,” noting that:
“The results of the poll demonstrate that marriage is an issue that many American voters care deeply about and one that could impact their choice for President,” the FRC press release stated.
In Arizona, after a contentious legislative session, a referendum on the marriage amendment, which would add language to the state Constitution defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman, passed with the minimum 16 votes needed and made it to the November ballot. (Arizona voters previously turned down an anti-same-sex marriage initiative.)
In Florida, Amendment 2 (the Florida Marriage Protection Amendment) has qualified for the November ballot. Sponsored by a group called Florida4Marriage, it would create a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
Both Senators Barack Obama and John McCain oppose same-sex marriage. McCain favors the proposed amendment to the California constitution: “I support the efforts of the people of California to recognize marriage as a unique institution between a man and a woman, just as we did in my home state of Arizona,” he said. Obama is against the proposed California state constitutional amendment: “I oppose the divisive and discriminatory efforts to amend the California Constitution, and similar efforts to amend the US Constitution or those of other states.“
Both McCain and Obama oppose a national constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
On July 10, ProtectMarriage.com, the sponsors of the initiative announced the hiring of Jennifer Kerns as Communications Director for the statewide ballot initiative. Kerns, the owner of K Street Communications, recently served as Senior Press Secretary for California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner. She also served as Communications Director for his election campaign, helping Poizner win a major victory over sitting Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante.