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."

The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination with about 16 million members, is often a bellwether of conservative Christian concerns. And last month, at the denomination's annual convention in Indianapolis abortion still dominated. The nearly 10,000 delegates and leaders made frequent references to ending abortion--in speeches, in pamphlets, in conversation, during prayer, and among exhibitors. In fact, the denomination's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission even set up a sonogram machine in the exhibit hall to perform "live ultra-sounds" every hour.

But you could see the ongoing evolution of gay marriage as an issue. In the exhibit hall, the Rev. Lynn Snider, a minister from Houston, was browsing the fabric Bible covers, child-rearing books, and Ten Commandments pens, while hand-holding couples strolled past booths offering Christian financial planning, pew manufacturing, and electrified church signs. Asked what the most important issue is facing the nation today, Snider said "the pro-life issue."

But his wife, Brenda, a cancer center employee in Houston, had a different angle. She named gay marriage as the most important issue. "Abortion has been there a long time, where gay marriage is a new one," Mrs. Snider explained. "Plus, I really feel like marriage is the very fabric of society, and when you peel that away, you have very little left."

Most convention-goers seemed to agree that gay marriage was a critical issue-- but only in the abstract. "I think people are more concerned about pocketbook issues than social issues," said Jim Twilbeck of Paris, Tenn., a public school teacher and director of missions at his church. "People are concerned about marriage, but it's not directly affecting our area yet."

Another convention-goer, Debbie Kell of Fresno, Calif., also described the "homosexual movement" as a "huge" issue for her. "They're trying to destroy traditional marriage," she said. "They want to destroy our lifestyle."

But she added that "life is important. I believe our country has declined since abortion was made illegal."

Indeed, during President Bush's speech to the convention, references to abortion and gay marriage got by far the most applause. When Bush mentioned each issue, people stood to clap, whoop, and holler.

Afterward, Richard Land, president of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said he was delighted the President's gay marriage opposition got such a strong response. "The abortion issue has been around for so long, people's response is instant," he said. "Gay marriage is a new paradigm. We knew the outrage was out there, and we were frankly puzzled that it wasn't showing up in phone calls to Congress."

Land contended that has begun to change, the result of conservative activists going into overdrive once they learned the Senate would vote on the Federal Marriage Amendment on Wednesday. "Trust me, the tidal wave is beginning to hit the beach," he said.

But nationwide polling on the Federal Marriage Amendment shows lukewarm support. A recent survey conducted by the Barna Research Group shows nearly one-third of voting-age Americans are unaware of the Federal Marriage Amendment. Once it was described to survey participants, the numbers show there is still not a strong majority in favor of its passage-46 percent in favor and 44 percent opposed. Ten percent had no opinion.

A June 30 poll conducted by the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey found that 43 percent of Americans favored a constitutional amendment, while 48 percent opposed it. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted in the same time frame found somewhat more support: 51 percent in favor, 44 percent against.

Yet Green says that on the issue of gay marriage itself--without a constitutional amendment as part of the equation--about 60 percent of Americans favor traditional marriage. Pro-life and pro-choice Americans are essentially split, 50-50. And that means that, in the long run, gay marriage may be an even more polarizing issue.

"There is both fear and a degree of excitement" among religious conservatives, says Green. "The fear is that `We keep getting traditional values undermined, and despite our work we can't stop this trend. We fight the good fight but go down to defeat.' But the excitement is, `Maybe [gay] marriage is different. Maybe this is the turning point.'"

Evangelicals hope so. Groups including the American Family Association, American Center for Law and Justice, and the Center for Reclaiming America gathered 1.4 million signatures for an online petition opposing gay marriage. Meanwhile, they declared July 11 Marriage Protection Sunday, holding a rally featuring evangelical heroes Dobson and Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship.

The rally was offered nationwide for simulcasting to evangelical churches--yet only about 1,000 churches offered it to their congregations, according to Perkins.

Activists also declared Monday Call Your Senator Day, urging followers to call fence-sitting lawmakers. The outpouring continues. The Christian Coalition of America sent out this alert to its followers: "Join our fax blast and bury [the senators] in a never ending sea of paper! As the debate winds down, we want to pound their faxes with a continuous assault that shows exactly where their constituents stand on this issue, and leaves them no choice regarding how to vote!"

Perkins says that if the Senate vote does not go his way-and it isn't expected to--he will push to have the issue dealt with again in Congress before the presidential election. He believes conservative Christians must keep fighting.

"In the short term, the marriage issue eclipses the life issue," he says. "And we don't have 30 years to fight. Because once we go down this path I don't think there's any turning back."

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