Speaking from the pulpit of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in May 2004, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson called for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Dobson’s words were simulcast into churches across the country as part of a “Battle for Marriage” rally that just happened to coincide with President George W. Bush’s hard-fought reelection campaign. Three months earlier, the president himself had announced to the nation that “to prevent the meaning of marriage from being changed forever, our nation must enact a constitutional amendment to protect marriage in America.”
Opposition to same-sex marriage emerged as a key component of the president’s reelection strategy that year, as the Bush campaign worked with Religious Right leaders, including Dobson, to marshal conservative voters to the polls to back state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage and other unions. Ballot measures in 11 states, all successful, aided the president’s reelection bid and helped to swing the momentum, for a time, to the side of the anti-gay Right.
While a federal constitutional amendment banning marriage for gay and lesbian couples had failed to clinch the required votes from either house of Congress, after the 2004 election, Dobson stressed that “mainstream Americans” supported such an amendment, knowing that they “could not stand idly by while the radical gay agenda was forced down their throats.”
A decade later, Dobson left Focus on the Family, reportedly in part because the organization he had founded refused to give a leadership position to his divorced son. Dobson and his son Ryan now host a radio program called “Family Talk” and Focus has moved on under the less fiery leadership of Jim Daly. Ted Haggard, the pastor of the church where Dobson spoke at the 2004 “Battle for Marriage,” eventually left his post after acknowledging that he had relationships with men. An architect of Bush’s 2004 re-election strategy, Ken Mehlman, announced six years later that he is gay. Another Bush campaign strategist, Karl Rove, said in 2013 that he could see a future GOP presidential nominee endorsing gay marriage.
This dramatic shift toward marriage equality may culminate this year when the Supreme Court hears arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges, a collection of cases challenging the constitutionality of the remaining state-level bans on same-sex marriage.
But the Religious Right is not ready to give up what was, until recently, a winning culture-war issue.
Now, as even many conservative pundits are predicting that the Supreme Court will strike down the remaining state bans on same-sex marriage, Religious Right leaders are preparing their response.
In a conference call with other movement figures, Dobson was steadfast in his opposition. If the Supreme Court strikes down the state bans and states across the country fail to convene “a state constitutional convention to re-examine the Constitution” on marriage, Dobson warned, “we’re going to see a general collapse in the next decade or two.”
Worse, Dobson said, there could be a war: “Talk about a Civil War, we could have another one over this.”
This style of apocalyptic rhetoric surrounding the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision is not uncommon in a movement whose leaders are preparing to commit civil disobedience and calling on states to defy the court if it issues a broad ruling in favor of marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples.
The Religious Right’s current strategy in the fight against marriage equality — claiming to be the real victims while making wild warnings about imminent anti-Christian persecution — was previewed in the 2009 signing of the Manhattan Declaration and the campaign against the Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act the same year.
Warning that America is on the brink of turning into a Nazi-like state where religious freedom is a thing of the past, a group of Roman Catholic and evangelical leaders, including prominent Religious Right figures, signed The Manhattan Declaration, pledging their commitment to civil disobedience in the face of what they described as the tyranny of gay rights laws and legal abortion.
Signers asserted that supporters of gay marriage and abortion rights are bent on trampling their religious freedoms. They compared themselves to Christian martyrs, civil rights leaders like Martin Luther, resisters to Nazi tyranny, heavenly angels and the signers of the Declaration of Independence. One of the declaration’s architects, the late Religious Right leader Chuck Colson, worried that Christians in America would soon end up in jail, while Dobson wondered if Americans will be forced to “leave this beloved country and spend the rest of our lives in exile.”
That same year, Religious Right activists launched a relentless, but unsuccessful, campaign against the Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expanded the federal hate crimes law to include crimes motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The Right alleged that the bill would criminalize Christian teachings and the Bible, throw pastors in jail, quash free speech and legalize pedophilia and other illegal sex acts. In the five years following the law’s enactment, none of the wild predictions about its effects have come close to materializing. But that hasn’t stopped the Religious Right from recycling the very same discredited claims to warn against nationwide marriage equality.
For example, Rick Scarborough, a prominent Texas pastor and activist with close ties to politicians including Sen. Ted Cruz, has repeated his unfounded claims about the 2009 hate crimes act almost verbatim when discussing the potential dangers of legalizing same-sex marriage. As did Mike Huckabee, who told pastors on a conference call that preaching against homosexuality will be criminalized. Just this month, Scarborough warned that if gay couples are no longer barred from marriage, preaching from the Bible will become a crime and anti-gay conservatives will be thrown in jail. Five years ago, he made almost exactly the same dire warning about the hate crimes act.
Influential Religious Right groups including the American Renewal Project, led by GOP organizer David Lane, and the Family Research Council are asking pastors to tell their congregations that marriage equality could bring about the end of freedom and, according to Lane, “a complete moral breakdown .” Lane has previously warned that legal equality for LGBT people will eventually lead to America’s “utter destruction” and even terrorist attacks.
The Religious Right’s apocalyptic rhetoric about marriage equality has only become more incendiary as many of the ban’s defenders begin to expect that they will lose at the Supreme Court.
Nazi Germany, Jim Crow comparisons
Increasingly, Religious Right leaders have been portraying the push for equal rights for the LGBT community as a fascist, Nazi-style movement that will usher in a wave of oppression. And much like how Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement resisted Jim Crow, these activists argue, conservatives must also defy gay rights laws that they view as equally if not more oppressive.
Bryan Fischer, the conservative radio host and former American Family Association spokesman, regularly claims that gay people are modern-day Nazis and to blame for the rise of Nazism in Germany, asserting that Adolf Hitler was “an active homosexual” who recruited gays into his cause because “homosexual soldiers basically had no limits and the savagery and brutality they were willing to inflict on whomever Hitler sent them after.”
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins has also wondered when gay rights supporters will “start rolling out the boxcars to start hauling off Christians.”
Mat Staver, chairman of the conservative legal advocacy group Liberty Counsel, has likened a potential pro-equality Supreme Court ruling to the infamous Dred Scott decision and urged people to defy such a ruling just as they would “if the government forced you turn over a Jew in Nazi Germany.” Staver, who has warned about the prospect of “forced homosexuality” and repeatedly compared gays to terrorists, insists that the Supreme Court could spark a new Civil Rights Movement, this time to oppose gay rights.
An alarming number of anti-gay activists have compared themselves to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran theologian who was executed for defying Nazi rule. “This is a Dietrich Bonhoeffer moment for every preacher in America,” Scarborough told participants in the recent activist conference call hosted by Dobson. Staver offered a similar message to conservatives in a recent radio interview: “This is a Bonhoeffer moment.”
David Lane has said that Christians in America “must risk martyrdom” over the issue of marriage equality. Likewise, American Family Association governmental affairs director Sandy Rios has repeatedly urged opponents of gay rights to “prepare for martyrdom.”
Conservative pundit Glenn Beck told his show’s viewers this year that gay rights advocacy is leading to concentration camps and “a Christian holocaust.” Other conservative commentators have similarly suggested that gay people are pushing for anti-Christian persecution and genocide.
The persecution theme seems to have struck a chord. Leading GOP figures including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, along with several Republican congressmen, all appear in a film to be released this year that alleges that the gay rights movement plans to outlaw Christianity. Huckabee has repeatedly invoked Nazi tyranny while discussing gay rights, and even said that the gay community seeks to ultimately destroy churches and the Gospel. Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz accused gay rights supporters of waging a “jihad” against freedom.
Even more frequently, anti-gay activists maintain that gay rights will usher in a new form of slavery and Jim Crow.
“Apparently someone forgot to tell the Stormtroopers in the homosexual movement about the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, and freedom of both will and conscience,” Fischer said last year. “The leaders of the Gay Gestapo have become our new slave masters. They can now send us to the hole if we refuse the massa’s demands.”
Fischer has also charged that gay rights measures violate the constitutional ban on slavery, and even declared that as a result of gay rights, “Jim Crow is alive and well, we’ve got Jim Crow laws right back in operation, Christians are the new blacks.”
Some activists are calling for an anti-gay version of Rosa Parks. One even suggested that gay marriage opponents should follow in the footsteps of the “sidewalk counselors” who stand outside of abortion clinics in order to dissuade women from entering.
Brian Brown, the head of the National Organization for Marriage, has similarly claimed that gay rights advocates are practicing an “anti-religious” version of Jim Crow, while Fox News pundit and RedState editor Erick Erickson has said that “gay rights activists use the tactics of Bull Connor to push for what they declare civil rights.”
Perkins, the Family Research Council leader, is one of the most visible and vocal figures in the Religious Right, frequently appearing on national television and hosting his own daily radio show. Perkins also organizes an annual conference, the Values Voter Summit, which brings top Republican politicians together with Religious Right activists. But despite his veneer of respectability, Perkins is just as extreme as activists considered to be on the far-right fringe: He has spoken out in defense of Uganda’s “kill the gays” measure and called gay rights supporters Satanic, among other things.
Perkins has also taken to warning that if the Supreme Court sides with marriage equality advocates, the U.S. will see a full-blown revolution.
Perkins warned in 2012 that if the Supreme Court were to strike down same-sex marriage bans throughout the country, “I’m telling you what, I think you will create a firestorm of opposition. I think that could be the straw that broke the camel’s back, when you look at a nation that is so divided along these moral and cultural issues that you could have — I hate to use the word — a revolt, a revolution. I think you could see Americans saying, ‘you know what, enough of this,’ and I think it could explode and just break this nation apart.”
“They’re sowing the seeds of the disillusion of our republic,” Perkins said of gay marriage supporters in 2014. “I think there’s coming a point that they’re going to push Christians to a point where they’re not going to be pushed anymore, and I think we’re very quickly coming to that point.”
As the Supreme Court considered a pair of marriage cases in 2013, Perkins said that the threat of a revolution may keep the justices from striking down same-sex marriage bans:
I believe the court will push as far as they think they can without creating a social upheaval or a political upheaval in this country. They’re smart people, I think, they understand how organizations and how societies work and if you get your substructure out of kilter with the superstructure, if you get government out of whack with where the people are and it goes too far, you create revolution. I think you could see a social and cultural revolution if the court goes too far on this.
Just last month, Perkins again predicted that the Supreme Court could trigger an uprising with a ruling in favor of marriage equality: “If the court imposes upon the nation a redefinition of marriage, I don’t think the nation is going to accept it, I absolutely don’t, and the conflict that is going to come as a result of it.”
Perkins may not find much support for his anti-gay revolution from the public at large, but he may find his some willing participants in his fellow Religious Right leaders.
Liberty Counsel founder Mathew Staver has claimed that a Supreme Court ruling favorable to marriage equality would take the country “back to the days of the American Revolution” and create the “groundswell of a potential new American Revolution.”
“Martin Luther [King] was always speaking of non-violent protest and I would hope that’s what we would do here but you never know what happens,” he cautioned.
Staver warns that an adverse Supreme Court ruling, along with President Obama’s pro-gay-rights policies and the possible passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, would have “catastrophic consequence[s] for our religious freedom, for the very function of the family, for marriage, for our human existence, for civil society and for any area of our liberty.”
“The church and people of faith and values need to rise up” against such a ruling, he said in 2013. “We just simply cannot allow this to become the law of the land.”
The previous year, Staver warned that marriage equality “could be the unraveling of the United States” and trigger a civil war:
This is the thing that revolutions literally are made of. This would be more devastating to our freedom, to our religious freedom, to the rights of pastors and their duty to be able to speak and to Christians around the country, then anything that the revolutionaries during the American Revolution even dreamed of facing. This would be the thing that revolutions are made of. This could split the country right in two. This could cause another civil war. I’m not talking about just people protesting in the streets, this could be that level because what would ultimately happen is a direct collision would immediately happen with pastors, with churches, with Christians, with Christian ministries, with other businesses, it would be an avalanche that would go across the country.
After the Supreme Court struck down a key portion of DOMA, Staver declared that the country was “crossing into the realm of rebellion, we’re crossing into the realm of revolution.”
The Alabama Example
After the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision led to a string of federal court decisions striking down bans on same-sex marriage, Religious Right leaders pleaded for governors and other state officials to openly flout the rulings.
Perkins said that states should not “listen to these courts” that make decisions “inconsistent with scripture.” Staver agreed, claiming that the states must defy any court which has “literally lost their mind.”
Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate, said state and local officials should simply refuse to enforce such rulings, explaining: “Well, the courts have spoken and it’s an important voice, but it’s not the voice of God and the Supreme Court isn’t God.”
Finally, they found their answer in Roy Moore, the elected chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.
Moore emerged as a conservative hero over a decade ago, when he defied orders to remove a Ten Commandments monument that he installed in the courthouse rotunda during his previous term as chief justice. When the standoff eventually led to Moore losing his post, he parlayed his newfound fame into two unsuccessful gubernatorial campaigns and even a presidential “exploratory committee.” Moore also launched his own far-right legal advocacy group, the Foundation for Moral Law.
Moore returned to the court after winning a statewide election in 2012 and two years later, he once again made national headlines when he ordered state probate judges, who are responsible for issuing marriage licenses, to disregard a Bush-appointed federal judge’s decision striking down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. Moore demanded that the state flout the ruling, saying that it had no need to implement the decision.
Moore has contended that gay marriage will “destroy the very foundation on which this country was built” and “destroy this country,” warning that the country will “suffer” divine judgment for embracing Satanic gay rights. “No society is prepared to deal with the problems arising out of same-sex marriages: child abuse, adoption, divorce, foster care, alimony, and the list could go on and on,” Moore told one anti-marriage-equality rally. In his prior stint as chief justice, he wrote that homosexuality is an “inherent evil” and “criminal lifestyle” that “should never be tolerated.”
Insisting that his personal reading of the Bible trumps the federal court’s ruling, Moore believes that any decision which contravenes his understanding of God’s law is inherently unconstitutional since the Constitution, he claims, is based on divine precepts.
His case against marriage equality is simple: “Homosexuality is wrong and we all know it. Marriage of the same sex is wrong and we all know it.” Moore’s legal advocacy organization, now led by his wife, defended his order to probate judges by explaining that “homosexual conduct is still sin, and we must stand firm for what is right.”
Conservative politicians hailed Moore. The head of the Alabama GOP thanked Moore for saving the state from God’s wrath; Religious Right preacher Cindy Jacobs said God had told her that He is using Moore “to reverse what Satan has done”; NOM’s Brian Brown praised Moore’s “principled stand” against “tyranny”; and Bryan Fischer said that Moore acted “in the finest tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr.” by "waging the civil rights battle of this decade.”
Moore took his show to the road, telling a rally in Texas held in his honor that he hopes he will not have to “give his life” in the fight against gay marriage. He warned at a Family Research Council event that the government will soon legalize “parent-and-child” marriages and justify “taking your children simply by the same logic they’re following.”
“Christians need to stand up and do their duty to God as their duty to their country,” he said.
Some Republicans and their allies in the Religious Right hope that Moore’s defiant stance will serve as a model for the rest of the country.
A bill introduced in Texas not only declares that the state does not have to follow any U.S. Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, but it goes one step further by blocking funding for the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The bill would go so far as to punish state employees who issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, barring such employees from “a salary, pension, or other employee benefit.”
In North Carolina, a group of Republican lawmakers want to create a religious exemption for officials in charge of issuing marriage licenses who don’t want to follow a recent court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. Staver’s group, Liberty Counsel, filed a lawsuit “requesting emergency protection from the state courts for any magistrate who refuses to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple.”
GOP lawmakers in Oklahoma reacted to a court ruling striking down their state’s marriage ban by proposing a bill which would remove any judge who issues a marriage license to a same-sex couple and deny salaries, benefits and pensions to any state employees involved in marrying gay couples. Another bill in Oklahoma would remove judges from the marriage licenses process altogether and instead restrict marriage duties to “an ordained or authorized preacher or minister of the Gospel, priest or other ecclesiastical dignitary of any denomination who has been duly ordained or authorized by the church to which he or she belongs to preach the Gospel, or a rabbi.”
End of the Line
While social conservative leaders have mostly focused on the purported repercussions of a decision that they see as unfavorable, they also have a plan in case the court sides with their arguments: demand that states roll back same-sex marriage rights and re-impose bans previously removed by the voters, lawmakers or courts.
For now, though, right-wing leaders will be focused on doing what they always do: misleading their supporters about the so-called dangers of gay rights, making reckless charges of religious persecution, and supporting unconstitutional means to promote their discriminatory goals.
However, Dobson and his allies do see the silver lining of legal gay marriage. In a conversation with Dobson the week before the Supreme Court’s oral arguments in the marriage cases, pastor Jim Garlow and former National Organization for Marriage president Maggie Gallagher predicted that Americans will ultimately reject gay marriage once the country experiences its horrible consequences; that is, if America is able to survive that long.