Its the Spiritual Economy, Stupid: Why the Gay Marriage Fracas Isn’t About Either

You know you’re living in strange times when latter-day disciples of an unmarried prophet who had not a word to say about homosexuality make the “defense” of marriage and the legal disenfranchisement of gay folks their life’s work.

After the California Supreme Court ruled last week against the constitutionality of state laws creating special marriage rights for heterosexuals, the New York Times reported that activists from the Family Research Council and other Christian conservative groups were mobilizing to amend California’s constitution to include the phrase, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid and recognized in California.”

That carefully crafted handful of words—as thoroughly test-marketed as a Viagra commercial—represents the latest in a decades-long series of efforts by religious conservatives to thwart the steady advance of public acceptance of gays and lesbians into the mainstream of American life.

According to an analysis of polling data published by CBS News, Americans are becoming more “gay friendly” at a rate of about one percent a year. Still, that means that only 45 percent of California voters are likely to vote against an amendment to the state constitution and in favor of gay marriage—based on the fact that 37 percent of Californians who participated in the 2000 ballot initiative to ban gay marriage voted against the measure.

That should be good news for the FRC and its allies. But an unpopular conservative president and opposition from a maverick Republican governor who favors gay rights could mean that advocates of an antigay amendment to California’s constitution will face a tough and potentially pivotal election-year battle in a state that exerts a powerful cultural and political influence on the rest of the country.

So why would Christian conservatives yoke the future of their movement to an issue that will almost certainly marginalize them within the next decade, if not sooner?

Well, the impulse behind the movement’s anti-gay activism doesn’t really have much to do with marriage and sexuality. No one on the religious right has argued—or is likely to argue—that the success or failure of Jenna Bush’s marriage really hinges on whether lesbians and gay men are allowed to tie the knot on the courthouse steps in San Francisco.

The real issues are the authority of the Bible and the nature of revelation.

Recent polls show that while roughly two-thirds of Americans believe that Noah’s flood, the creation story and other biblical events are literally true, only about 40 percent of those surveyed accept the Bible as completely inerrant—a figure declining at about the rate that public acceptance of gays and lesbians is increasing.

So a lot is at stake in a political initiative with deep roots in the foundations of canonical Christianity. If religious conservatives can’t persuade a majority of Californians to heed one element in an otherwise obscure list of purity codes in Deuteronomy—and that Jesus’ preaching in the gospels isn’t really complete without Paul’s finger-wagging in Romans—the stitching that holds together the disparate parts of the Good Book will have subtly but irrevocably loosened, along with the Bible’s centuries-old grip on American public life.

Of course, religious conservatives can’t frame their proposed amendment to California’s constitution as a referendum on taboos that were originally part of a set of religious practices that included stoning and animal sacrifice. That strategy would entail some serious public relations challenges—not to mention the additional difficulty posed by the First Amendment.

Backers of the initiative will rely instead on the manipulation of violent feelings—particularly fear, anger and revulsion—to get voters to the polls. It’s no small irony that in overturning the ban on gay marriage, California’s Supreme Court cited as precedent the 60-year-old ruling that ended the state’s anti-miscegenation laws, which were also expressions of the kind of primitive emotionalism that animates the movement against gays and lesbians.

But beneath their concern for the diminishing authority of the Bible in popular moral discourse, religious conservatives no doubt also feel a decidedly counter-orthodox shift in the spiritual currents of the times. As columnist David Brooks has noted, recent advances in neuroscience suggest that empathy, compassion and even self-transcendence are common features of human experience—regardless of the cultural influence of particular religious texts and practices.

Revelation, it seems, is happening all around us. How can the defenders of orthodox faith claim an exclusive franchise on something that’s freely given?

To judge from their role in California’s gay marriage drama, religious conservatives are leveraging their store of fear and anger against their losses in the increasingly open market for self-transcendence. That may turn out to be a winning strategy in anxious times. But if patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, surely scapegoating is the last resort of a religious movement that has lost its way.