When legalized gay marriage appeared on the horizon a year ago, Religious Right activists quickly organized, believing the issue could galvanize their followers and potentially turn them against Democrats who didn't denounce it. By February, Focus on the Family's James Dobson, former Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer, and other leaders had convinced the Bush Administration to support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage--and the administration publicly embraced that position.

Then little happened. Folks in the pews continued to abhor the idea of gay marriage, just as the activists had said they would--but they didn't do much about it. Fewer than expected bothered to call senators, write emails, send money, or march in demonstrations. By June, President Bush expressed exasperation that his base--whose leaders had lobbied so hard to get administration support for the amendment--wasn't doing enough to support him.

"The base is not yet energized, even today," says John Green, religion and politics expert at the University of Akron's Bliss Institute for Applied Politics.

Evangelical leaders agree. "For months all of us had been wringing our hands over the lethargy in the evangelical movement over the same-sex "marriage" issue," according to Chuck Colson, the former Watergate felon and founder of Prison Fellowship. "It seemed as if people were only concerned with what's in it for them and that they were staying in their churches, concerned about recruiting and nothing else."

The reason, says Green, is that "gay marriage works very well among religious conservatives, but turning it into something actionable requires a vehicle. And a constitutional amendment has certain problems."

First, conservative Christians contend that America was founded as a Christian nation. As a result, they see the hand of God in the writing of the U.S. Constitution-and therefore don't take kindly to changing it.

"That's not a tremendously explicit belief, but it's a common one," Green says. "So when non-religious people or liberals want to change something, that really troubles them. For their own leaders to come to them and tell them we need to amend the constitution, among certain segments the response is, 'What? Why do we want to do this?'"

"I think the reluctance on the part of people to amend the constitution is a good thing. It's a fundamental document," says Nathan Lehman, research director at Wallbuilders, a Christian group that researches the religious roots of the nation's founders. Although Wallbuilders supports the Federal Marriage Amendment, Lehman said that for Christians, the constitution is the "next highest law" to the Bible--which makes amending it a serious issue.

In addition, conservatives tend to prefer state and local laws to solve problems, as opposed to federal solutions. "If gay marriage just stayed in Massachusetts and didn't come to South Carolina and other parts of God's country, that would be acceptable to religious activists," Green says.

Finally, most people, evangelicals included, aren't all that interested in political action. "What the activists have discovered, to their chagrin, is there is not an uprising in the pews," says Green. "Left to their own devices, most people don't do politics, even if they're really, really angry."

And for that reason, gay marriage appears to mirror abortion. It may infuriate and galvanize conservative Christians, but it will also probably take time to turn that anger into action. Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion, was handed down in 1973. The pro-life movement, however, wasn't really born until 1979, with the founding of the Moral Majority.

Twenty-five years later, abortion is still legal and the nation is locked in a cultural battle over it. Having learned a lesson from the abortion battles, Religious Right activists want to stop gay marriage before it becomes widespread.

Tony Perkins, director of the Family Research Council, contends that he and other activists are succeeding in educating their constituents. "The learning curve has been a lot quicker on this than on abortion," he says.

But not all conservatives are on board. Former Rep. Bob Barr, R-Georgia, a conservative Christian who opposes gay marriage, opposes the amendment. "It takes a moral decision out of the states, where it is most likely to be made with optimal benefit to everyone," he said during testimony last month before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. "In treating the Constitution as an appropriate place to impose publicly contested social policies, it would cheapen the sacrosanct nature of that document."
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