Gay Marriage: A Real Threat?


The intersection of religion and politics became a talk show hit after Nov. 2, when the religious right played a huge, and perhaps pivotal, role in the re-election of President Bush.

Jews are not of one mind about the new focus on faith in politics, but many in the large non-Orthodox majority remain uncomfortable with that trend and are downright scared of new threats to the church-state wall posed by the religious conservatives.

And many are troubled by the blatant manipulation of the “values agenda” by the consultants, media gurus and party strategists who increasingly dominate American politics.

That cynical use of religion was shockingly evident in the gay marriage debate that was a huge factor in the 2004 election outcome.

At least in part, the gay marriage frenzy was ignited by politicians cynically exploiting the issue, not by the perception of any genuine threat. And, in the process, the attack-dog pols gave backhanded legitimacy to raw bigotry — something that is always dangerous to Jews, even when they are not the direct targets.

The recent study for Facts and Trends, a publication of the Southern Baptist Convention, surveyed Protestant ministers nationwide and shed some light on the gay marriage issue. The goal was to determine what the clergy saw as the “greatest threats to families in their communities.”

Some 43 percent of the pastors identified the biggest threat as divorce — an issue that has gotten almost no attention from the political defenders of the family, possibly because so many of them have experienced divorce firsthand.

In second place was “negative influences from the media”; “materialism” scored third.

The list goes on and on, with threats ranging from pornography to the expenses of child care. “Sexual predators or sexual abuse,” issues frequently raised by anti-gay marriage crusaders, was identified as a major threat by only 1 percent of the pastors.

And gay marriage? It wasn’t even on the chart. Apparently pastors across the country do not see this as even a minor danger in their own communities.

The researchers had an answer; the survey, they said, was conducted before the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in that state in February.

But evangelical political groups have been raging against gay marriage as a direct threat to the family for several years. The survey shows that despite that effort, the issue did not resonate with Christian clergy, who had a much more realistic view of the threats in their communities.

But then, along came the consultants and strategists who knew a winning issue when they saw one.

After the Massachusetts court decision, Republican politicians, aided by conservative Christian interest groups, seized on the issue as a gift from the judicial gods. They used it effectively to divert attention from a host of obvious threats to the nation, many of which lawmakers of both parties bore significant responsibility for — including the mushrooming budget deficit, the shaky economy, the war in Iraq and the homeland security mess.

Morality, they raged, was under siege by “activist judges”; the goal, many proclaimed, was nothing short of the destruction of the American family, not equal rights for gays and lesbians.

While gay marriage is an appropriate topic for serious debate, there was no basis for those exaggerated claims, as the Protestant pastors understood — but still, whipped to an election-year froth, they resonated with a huge number of Americans eager for an enemy they could identify, not incomprehensible economic forces or the elusive Osama bin Laden.

Ballot initiatives banning gay marriage were rushed onto the ballots in 11 states; all passed, some by overwhelming margins, and that outpouring is credited with helping boost the GOP presidential ticket and congressional candidates across the country.

Politicians were acting on one of the oldest axioms in American democracy: when your political situation gets dicey, you can’t go wrong drumming up fear and fury aimed at some unpopular group. Immigrants, Catholics and Jews have all served as targets in the past; now it was the gays’ turn.

The dangers to the Jewish community — which supports same-sex marriage and civil unions more than almost any other community but also includes significant dissenting voices — should be obvious.

Every time politicians resort to open scapegoating, they legitimize the use of hatred in the political arena. It’s even worse when their efforts pay big political dividends, as they did in 2004 — a lesson that won’t be lost on self-serving politicians in the next election cycle.

Right now, it’s gays and lesbians who are the target. But Jews can never be sure the stain of hatred won’t target our community, as well.

The Anti-Defamation League, among others, has always operated on the premise that bigotry, while ever-present in our world, can never be tolerated in public expression. Yet, that is what happened in the long election campaign.

Ask the pastors. Gay marriage is far from the biggest threat facing American families. The politicians who portrayed it as such are playing a dangerous game that can only undercut the basic protections that all minorities — including Jews — depend on in a pluralistic America.