The FundamentaList (No. 77)

1. Is the Anti-Gay-Marriage Movement Dead?

The Times' Frank Rich, in his gloating obituary of the anti-gay-marriage movement, got a little ahead of himself on Sunday. Rich is right that, as Paul Waldman demonstrated last week, public opinion is trending toward legalization of marriage equality. Still, fundamentalist religious movements should never be counted out of American politics. Nor should their gentler cousins, whom the new president has embraced, be written off.

Even John McCain's campaign manager Steve Schmidt and the senator's daughter Meghan, who just adores her gay hair stylist (and really, who doesn't?), are saying the fundamentalist obsession with gay marriage will be the GOP's downfall.

But those who argue that the issue of gay marriage is done miss the same point: Democrats are nervous that their new evangelical friends are opposed to gay marriage. That is why, despite the public-opinion trends, the president and many other prominent Democrats are too timid to promote marriage equality. In other words, the opposition to gay marriage still holds sway over elections and electioneering, just not in the same way.

President Barack Obama, who endorsed gay marriage back when it was politically expedient, argued in the 2008 presidential campaign that he could support only civil unions. He had caught a whiff of that old-time religious conscience. That would be the "religious conscience" of supposedly well-intentioned Christians who just couldn't brook the government -- which doesn't tell religious denominations who they can and cannot marry in any event -- asserting that gay and lesbian couples should have the very same rights as everyone else.

No one would crash down the rectory doors to demand a ceremony from an unwilling pastor. The question of whether the two mommies next door offends one's religious sensibilities should be of no moment. The government can't decide that some people's religious "conscience" deserves deference, particularly when other people's rights are involved. For many gay and lesbian couples, a religiously sanctioned and legally recognized marriage is essential, not just civilly but in God's eyes as well. Why does their religious "conscience" not matter here?

2. The New Anti-Gay Evangelicals: God Has A Better Plan for You.

By placing religious opponents of gay marriage in prominent positions, like the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships advisory council, or his inaugural dais, Obama legitimates their views. Frank Page, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and a member of the council, last week undercut his fellow Southern Baptist Rick Warren for going wobbly on anti-gay-marriage crusades. And Charles Blake, presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ and another council member, represents a denomination that is as anti-gay-marriage as they come.

The council also includes Obama spiritual advisers Joel Hunter and Jim Wallis, who claim to be leading a new movement opposed to the narrow, wedge issues of the religious right. Wallis has endorsed civil unions, but both pastors believe same-sex marriage is unbiblical. Hunter -- who says he spurns the religious right and its tactics and gave a benediction at the Democratic National Convention -- even endorsed Florida's gay-marriage ban last year.

The "new," less divisive evangelicals say they don't want to get in the trenches of the marriage fight anymore. But their condescending views on LGBT people can be summed up in the Southern Baptist Convention's Jonathan Merritt's post on USA Today this week: "Though I unashamedly believe that God desires a better path for their lives, I also understand that my obligation to love them is not dependent upon their capitulation to a particular belief system."

3. Religious Activists React to Release of OLC Torture Memos.

After the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) torture memos were released last week, the National Religious Coalition Against Torture (NRCAT), a coalition of 250 religious groups, reiterated its call for a commission of inquiry to investigate the U.S. government's use of torture.

NRCAT, which called for a special prosecutor in 2007, is going to focus its energies on advocating for a commission of inquiry over criminal investigations, its executive director, the Rev. Richard Killmer, tells me. "They are two distinct tasks," he says, and "both are needed. The law needs to be upheld."

At the same time, Killmer says, "our higher priority is getting out the information," which he describes as "imperative" following the memos' release. "It was worse than we thought it was going to be."

Carol Wickersham, a Presbyterian pastor, sociology professor at Beloit College, and a NRCAT board member, says her "frustration at this point is that while Obama has signaled an intention" to end torture, "unless we make clear that there is a line that cannot be stepped over without severe consequences, all it is is wishful thinking and good intentions."

Wickersham, who is also the coordinator of the Presbyterian grass-roots organization No2Torture, adds, "I've been underwhelmed by Congress' response on this issue," but says she is still hoping that Obama will hold the OLC memo authors accountable. "At this point it's a hope, I don't have a strong conviction. I hope the religious community will create the political will to make it happen."

4. The Sweeping Agenda of the OFBNP.

In a speech to donors to the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism this weekend, Joshua DuBois, director of the OFBNP, laid out an ambitious agenda for the office. To hear DuBois tell it to this liberal, social-justice group, one might conclude that President Obama could not accomplish his larger goals without a government partnership with religious groups.

The office was created, DuBois said, because "the president believes we have significant challenges at home and across the globe." He mentioned broken school systems, prohibitive health-care costs, and inter-religious conflicts at home and abroad.

"The president strongly believes we can't solve these challenges here in Washington, we can't solve them on our own, we have to connect with individuals and families and communities all across the country, and that includes community-based groups and faith-based organizations as well. The role of my office is to form partnerships between the government and those organizations to serve people in need and advance common good."

Thankfully, Obama has jettisoned the raison-d'etre of Bush's faith-based initiative, which purportedly was to "level the playing field" for faith-based groups. That justification was nothing more than a Rovian skid-greasing to give electorally valuable faith-based groups greater access to government cash.

By laying out Obama's expansive plan for the OFBNP, and the sprawling policy role the president has given his 25-member advisory council, DuBois ultimately raised more questions than answers about why religion -- and politically active religious figures -- must play such a prominent role in carrying out the administration's goals.

If religion does factor deeply in the administration's policy-making, that causes concern about the intertwining of religion and policy. If the advisory council is merely window dressing, that raises other questions about whether the OFBNP is, in a different way from Bush's initiative, merely a political ploy to garner favor with religious leaders and their vote-rich constituencies.

DuBois reiterated the OFBNP's agenda that will be shaped by its advisory council: promoting responsible fatherhood, reducing the need for abortion, encouraging interfaith cooperation, addressing poverty and climate change, and "integrating community-based organizations in the economic recovery."

That last agenda item was a new addition to the advisory council's mandate. To achieve it, DuBois claimed that his office was already cutting the "red-tape" and removing the "hurdles" community-based organizations face that impede "job-training programs, and mortgage counseling, and home weatherization, and so forth."

5. The "Responsible Fatherhood" Mandate.

On some of the culture-engineering mandates like reducing the need for abortion and "encouraging responsible fatherhood," the charged gender politics of religion will make the role of the advisory council fraught.

DuBois did not explain why religious figures were needed to help shape "responsible fatherhood" initiatives, a mandate that has been criticized by feminist theologians and others for overemphasizing the role of religion in defining family and gender roles.

He did claim that government stands in the way of what he called "healthy family formation." Obama, DuBois said, "thinks the federal government can do more to eliminate barriers to healthy family formation and encourage families to come together and encourage responsible fatherhood." DuBois did not specify what those barriers were, nor did he elaborate upon the "many inefficiencies in the federal government that actually drive families apart."

Again, more questions: If that is true, how will the religious advisory council alleviate that? And if the advisory council has another role -- to help define what a "healthy family" is -- how will the theo-conservative views of many of its members factor in?

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