The Religious Right is Swiftboating Same Sex Marriage in Maine
By Karen Ocamb, News editor, Frontiers in LA
“God has no grandchildren,” the evangelical ex-Marine father of my late friend Chip Howe said, explaining how he surrendered judgment and came to accept Chip’s homosexuality. Chip, a Lieutenant in the Navy during the Vietnam War, was supposed to get married and provide his parents with grandchildren. Chip’s father thought being gay meant that would never happen.
That was in 1990, before there was any real hope for marriage rights for same sex couples. Though Chip had known love before he died, he never got to experience the fruition of his constitutional right to pursue happiness – marriage and a family of his own.
The story is instructive because Religious Right professionals have succeeded in making it appear as if all people of faith are antigay and anti-marriage equality. Worse yet, they are using religion as an excuse to perpetrate lies and deception – to swiftboat same sex couples in the name of God, when in fact they are just advancing another end-justifies-the-means political scheme.
That’s what happened in California and that’s what is now underway in Maine as opponents of same sex marriage fight to prevent Maine’s marriage equality law from taking effect though a referendum on the Nov. 3 ballot.
State Sen. Larry Bliss (D-South Portland) got to the heart of the issue in his Sept. 8 op-ed response to Rev. Bob Emrich’s Aug. 26 Maine Voices column advocating passage of the anti-gay Question 1.
“Do we want a Maine where Rev. Emrich and his supporters tell the rest of us who can be a family and who can love whom?
Marriage equality upholds traditional Maine values of personal freedom and equality by respecting the right of every Mainer to marry the person he or she loves.
That’s the Maine I live in. Those are the values I hold dear.”
Watch Out Maine
But that’s not the Maine residents will recognize in the next two months as the Proposition 1 political campaign heats up.
This Sunday, Sept. 13, for instance, Maine Jeremiah Project’s Emrich and the National Organization for Marriage with their Stand for Marriage Maine coalition (S4MM) are holding a rally featuring some of the big guns in the Religious Right professional world – Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council (FRC), Pastor Chris Clark from San Diego, and via video, Focus on the Family’s Dr. James Dobson.
The purpose of the rally is to galvanize their conservative Christian base and help organize an army of volunteers and a network of churches to “Impact Maine Culture,” as described on the Maine Jeremiah Project website. Apparently the media is not being allowed into the event.
California also experienced a pre-election onslaught of out-of-state Religious Right professionals – including Perkins and Dobson – for a massive rally in San Diego dubbed TheCall. (Religious Right watcher Bruce Wilson, who is straight, later described on the Huffington Post how TheCall’s organizer Lou Engle is tied to violent Religious Right extremists.)
Perhaps the most widely publicized religious involvement in California’s Prop 8 battle was by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), more commonly referred to as the Mormon Church. Protect Marriage/Yes on 8 campaign manger Frank Schubert said members of the Mormon Church eventually contributed “somewhere in the $20 million range, so about half of what we raised – which we were very grateful for.”
Progressive California Courage Campaign founder Rick Jacobs and the Rev. Eric Lee, director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, held a news conference outside the Mormon Church in LA after church elders asked members to sacrifice to fund Yes on 8 – which they did, getting second mortgages and dipping into their scarce savings.
In fact, on Nov. 3, 2008, blogger hekebolos published a leaked internal memo on Daily Kos that seemed to indicate that Mormon leaders had been working to prevent marriage equality in California and Hawaii since 1997, recruiting local California Catholic bishops to serve as the front for the operation. The story was later picked up by blogger Jim Burroway at Box Turtle Bulletin, which expanded the reach to Arizona.
With a prominent member of the Mormon Church on the National Organization for Marriage’s (NOM) board of directors, longtime politico Fred Karger publically challenged NOM founder Maggie Gallagher over whether NOM is really a “front” for the Mormon Church. Last month, Karger, founder of Californians Against Hate, pressed the question, asking whether Maine’s Stand for Marriage PAC might be receiving funds “laundered” through groups such as NOM. The Maine Commission of Government Ethics and Election Practices will consider Karger’s official request for an investigation on Oct. 1 in Augusta.
Not all Mormons backed Prop 8 or appreciated what the church did in their name. Famous former San Francisco 49er quarterback Steve Young, for instance, who is a descendant of Mormon founder Brigham Young, opposed Prop 8, posting “No on 8” signs in front of his Palo Alto home and his wife Barbara contributed $50,000. And many non-Mormon residents of Utah worried about whether a growing backlash over Mormon involvement might impact the state.
But to hear the Religious Right professionals talk about it, the campaign over Prop 8 in California was “spiritual warfare,” a cataclysmic battle between good and evil.
Chuck Colson, Watergate felon and founder of the Prison Fellowship Ministries, said this on a Yes on 8 video produced by the American Family Association for widespread distribution to pastors and Christian activists:
“This vote on whether we stop the gay marriage juggernaut in California is the Armageddon. We lose this, we’re going to lose in a lot of other ways, including freedom of religion.”
Catholics for Protect Marriage leader Bill May told the Associated Press:
This [California] Supreme court decision was a huge wake-up call for Catholics. It was shocking. The sense is that this is the last chance to restore the definition of marriage, and if unsuccessful, it is going to have serious ramifications for California and across the nation.
FRC’s National Prayer Director Rev. Pierre Bynum said in an email:
“Thirty-five years of an American abortion holocaust, the civil imposition of homosexual ‘marriage’ upon America and the indoctrination of America’s public school children in pro-homosexual ideology are practices that a Holy God will not tolerate.”
FRC President Tony Perkins wrote in an e-mail:
“The future of our nation hangs in the balance!”
And Jim Garlow, pastor of the evangelical Skyline Church in San Diego County, told AP:
“This is not political to us. We see it as very spiritual.”
Garlow was one of the organizers of TheCall in San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, which was designed to mobilize “God’s Army” for a war between “Darkness versus Light.”
“We would not have won without people of faith in California,” Jeff Flint, Schubert’s partner in Schubert/Flint Public Affairs said later. Their first survey showed that the “ultimate driver” of contributions and volunteers was a belief that the institution of marriage was created by God and not a construct of man. They wound up with an “army of volunteers” – 100,000 on Election Day with 3 million people identified in their database. The ethnic vote, he said, “was the margin of victory for us.”
Third party validaters – including 7,500 pastors – helped galvanize their tremendous grassroots effort, which was organized down to the precinct level. “We spent almost a million dollars on pastor involvement,” Schubert said later. “Conference calls, webinars, you name it – we got people involved in it. Catholic, evangelical, Mormon churches were very fully engaged.”
Creating a Movement
For the most part, gay people and their allies didn’t pay much attention to the pronouncements of people they considered fanatic “wing nuts.” Besides, they were too happy getting married and feeling equal for the first time in their lives. And the polls indicated that Prop 8 was destined for defeat. They could not imagine that anyone with a heart would want to take away such a precious fundamental right that the California Supreme Court said they had too long been denied.
What few people knew at the time was that the Religious Right professionals were taking Bush Administration political operative Karl Rove’s successful anti-gay marriage playbook and expanding and transforming it into a national Protect Marriage Movement. (See the lower right corner of the S4MM website).
NOM executive director Brian Brown moved to California and became one of the main leaders of the Yes on 8/Protect Marriage campaign. After Prop 8’s startling success, the Protect Marriage Movement decided to export their victory – and headed to Maine. But as Brown told the Washington Blade, NOM is also preparing to do battle in Washington DC, New York and New Jersey and “monitoring” developments in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. People for the American Way’s Right Wing Watch noted that NOM’s financing still remains a mystery. Brown told the Blade that they would release NOM’s 2008 990 form “as soon as it completes its processing.” The problem, Right Wing Watch noted, is that “there’s no such thing as a ‘processing’ period.”
Right Wing Watch also cited an interview by EDGE publication with Christopher Plante, Executive Director of NOM’s Rhode Island chapter, in which Plante dismissed statements by NOM board member Orson Scott Card who called for the overthrow of civil government if Prop 8 failed in California. According to an op-ed in the July 24, 2008 Mormon Times, Card said:
“How long before married people answer the dictators thus: Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down, so it can be replaced with a government that will respect and support marriage, and help me raise my children in a society where they will expect to marry in their turn.”
Meanwhile, Frank Schubert, hired though NOM to be S4MM’s campaign manager, told National Public Radio Sept. 3 that the Mormon Church would not be involved in the Maine effort. Nonetheless, according to Karger’s review of the first campaign report filed on July 15, S4MM raised about $350,000 – with “99.99%” coming from three professional Religious Right sources: the National Organization for Marriage, the Maine chapter of Focus on the Family and the Portland diocese.
Schubert, who hopes for a civil debate in Maine, told NPR:
“The reality is that this is a national campaign. People around the country and internationally are looking at what’s going to happen in Maine. Both sides are doing what they can to marshal support wherever they can find support. It will be a pitched battle.”
Marc Mutty, S4MM executive chairman who NPR says is on loan from the diocese, told NPR:
“It isn’t about anything other than the definition of marriage, what it’s going to mean to us and how it’s going to be defined in society….Many certainly feel uncomfortable about [the belief that legalizing same-sex marriage will lead to a new curriculum in the schools] and about the fact that children as young as 7 or 8 years old are being taught about gay sex in some detail.” [Emphasis added]
The Big Swiftboat Lie
And there, in a nutshell, is the conflation by a Religious Right professional of the political mission of the Yes on 1 campaign and the scary flat out lie that same sex marriage will invariably lead to gay sex being taught to young school children “in some detail.”
This is intentional and purely political – as Frank Schubert himself outlined in a discussion of Prop 8 during the convention last March of the American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC), where Republican Catholic Schubert sits on the board of directors. Schubert and his company Schubert/Flint Public Affairs won several awards for their Prop 8 campaign, but he apparently received a cold reception from his peers.
One reason for the cold shoulder may have been that on a June 23, 2008 AAPC panel in Sacramento just after he was hired, Schubert promised to run a very different campaign from what Yes on 8 turned out to be. (Please note that all videos of Schubert at AAPC were shot and produced by Edward Headington of the Headington Media Group.) Schubert anticipated a “very broad and deep source of contributors” including pharmaceutical companies.
Additionally, Schubert said:
“We’re going to do everything we can to run a positive, uplifting campaign. There is not going to be any gay-bashing in our campaign. That is not to say that won’t occur – but when it does occur, we’ll do everything in our power to stop it. There are many people working to develop messages that are positive and affirming for the institution of marriage. That’s our objective.”
But that’s not what happened, as Schubert explained during a “Prop 8 Case Study” panel presented by AAPC last March. In order to win, Yes on 8 needed to define the terms of the debate:
“We knew from the very beginning that a campaign that was simply an affirmation of traditional marriage and did not develop a path that lead voters to consider consequences to legalized same sex marriage in California – that that formula would not be successful. We would not get to 50% of the vote. So we redefined the measure as not being about tolerance of gay relationships but about being about consequences of gay marriage.”
The change in strategy, Schubert noted, came after considerable research into public opinion through firms such as San Francisco-based Bill Criswell who is working with Schubert on the advertising and media campaign in Maine.
Several bloggers have raised questions about Criswell Associates – the creative mind behind the NOM-sponsored “Gathering Storm” ad. (Parodies of the ad were plentiful, including this one with “One Tree Hill” actress Sophia Bush and “Clueless” star Alicia Silverstone.)
Jeremy Hooper at Good As You and Lisa Derrick at La Figa at Fire Dog Lake penned some painfully funny descriptions of Criswell’s inept casting director trying to find “real Mainers” for campaign ads. (Respectful hat tip to Jason Echols at Chino Blanco for his shared reporting.)
Additionally, according to the blog The Verifiable Truth, Criswell did political advertising for conservative California Republican Tom McClintock’s successful 2008 congressional campaign. But the blog reported that the Secretary of State records show that McClintock paid more than $130,000 to “Marketing Communications Svcs., Inc” – not Criswell Associates – at the same address. However, Marketing Communications Svcs., Inc., is not registered as a corporation in California.
Change in Strategy
During the Prop 8 Case Study workshop, Schubert said he, Flint and their team spent hours “looking at where people were and what we needed to do to reach them.”
What they found was that most Californians were very tolerant of same sex relationships. Schubert said:
“They didn’t see how gay marriage effected them, per se. It wasn’t their issue. It wasn’t something they cared to think about. It wasn’t something they wanted to talk about. It was an uncomfortable subject generally for them event to get their arms around.”
In fact, a more recent story on NOM executive director Brian Brown in the Washington Post noted just how prevalent that point of view is:
“Sue Brown had never really thought about same-sex marriage until she met Brian. “Obviously, I always realized there were gay people,” she says one Friday morning, sitting in the still-sparsely furnished living room. “But I didn’t think about them wanting to get married.” And once she did: “Initially, I probably thought, well, what’s the big deal if they do? What does it have to do with me?”
The solution, Schubert said, was to get voters to think about “potential consequences” if gays were allowed legal rights beyond domestic partnerships.
They conducted a series of surveys where they discovered that about 45% were with the Yes on 1 side, about 42% supported marriage equality, so after qualifying the measure and firing up their base, they targeted the 10-12% in the middle.
“At the end of the day, people vote on issues based on how they think it will impact them and their families. We spent a great deal of time trying to understand what impacts could we develop that would work. Communication has to be aimed at and appeal to those self interests of the electorate.”
Flint said that applying the art and science of what they do, they decided they needed to raise a doubt about something-
“…raising a doubt and projecting a doubt forward – that you have to get people to believe may happen but it hasn’t happened yet. So in this case, gay marriage had been legal for a few months and we wanted people to understand that that could mean consequences. But largely because it was a new thing, those consequences were something that could happen in the future.”
It was “one of the turning points in the campaign” during a late night session in the office, Flint said, when they realized that they could run with that: “something could happen that you may not like so you need to vote Yes to stop that from happening.”
“We had to stick together a whole series of arguments,” Schubert said, noting the enormous complexity of the message that must include understanding that most Californians were tolerant, wanted legal rights for same sex couples, didn’t see how same sex marriage impacted them, and didn’t want to throw gay couples under the bus.
Then they figured it out, Schubert said, aided by this “gift” of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s exuberant reaction to the California Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing same sex marriage.
“This is not about tolerance. This is about forced acceptance of gay marriage – whether you like it or not….You’re going to have this conflict that arises in everyday life with a gay couple asserting their right to marry under the Supreme Court’s decision and the deeply held beliefs of people who do not support gay marriage. And when those collide – when that conflict exists – it comes in a dozen different situations – the rights of the gay couple are going to prevail because of the way the court reached their decision. That’s why it’s important to this underlying message you have to accept gay marriage, whether you like it or not.”
The Ah-ha Moment: Consequences
Additionally, Schubert said:
“What the research showed was that we could not win by simply affirming traditional marriage. People said, ‘Yeah, OK – but what’s the problem here. How does this impact me?’…. This forced acceptance [by the court] that gay marriage was now mandatory was a big deal – the consequences – specifically regarding religious freedom, religious expression and teaching of gay marriage in schools – and the education consequences become the most powerful in the course of the campaign.
We bet the campaign on consequences – especially on education. Education from the beginning – while it was one of three consequences – it was the one that was the most emotionally charged and the most powerful. And I remember testing an ad in focus groups in Southern California….[One ad was} with the Wirthlin couple from Massachusetts. She’s telling the story of her son Joey – about he’s being taught how a prince can marry another prince – and he’s in second grade.
There’s an African American gentleman in this group watching the ad [who] just shakes his head. So I [told the researcher to] ask him what he meant. And the guy says, ‘I’ll tell you what, if that happened to me – I would be pissed.’
And that was the moment that we decided that the campaign would rely on education.”
The “Real” Wirthlins
The Yes on 8 team flew the Wirthlins from Massachusetts to California for a bus tour of the state, positing them as “real people” who exemplified the “consequence” of same sex marriage being taught in schools. “We bet the farm on this argument over whether gay marriage would be taught in public schools,” Flint said.
But the reality of this “real” couple is that they, too, were Religious Right professionals, too. When The Bay Area Reporter picked up the story about the LDS internal memo from 1997, reporter Dan Aiello noted the role played in California’s antigay initiative Prop 22 by Mormon strategist and Republican pollster Richard “Dick” Wirthlin, a relative of the Massachusetts couple Joseph Robb and Robin Wirthlin used by Yes on 8. Schubert told BAR that it was “preposterous” to connect Dick Wirthlin to Yes on 8.
But BAR uncovered significant information indicating that the Wirthlins actively sought conflict with the school:
“Parents in the Lexington School District in Massachusetts disputed many of the Wirthlins claims to the B.A.R., pointing out that when the Wirthlins moved into the district they were already involved with two groups seeking to ban same-sex marriage. One of those groups, MassResistance, run by Brian Camenker, has been called an “anti-gay hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.”
The Lexington parents told the B.A.R. that the couple moved into the district and enrolled their son into the school already aware of a complaint filed by David Parker against the school’s anti-bias curriculum. Additionally, Lexington School District superintendent Paul Ash told the B.A.R. that he made “several attempts to appease the Wirthlins and accommodate their religious convictions” but he concluded that the couple was intent on a public fight. Just weeks after they moved into the district, the Wirthlins joined Parker in filing a lawsuit.
At the AAPC Prop 8 Case Study panel, Frank Schubert said, “I want to make this crystal clear: there is nothing that we said in this campaign that we did not believe to be true.”
But there is a difference between believing something to be true and factual accuracy. Like the discredited “Swiftboaters for Truth” who challenged Sen. John Kerry’s heroism in the Vietnam War, it appears that Schubert and the Religious Right professionals used religion as moral cover to swiftboat and intentionally mislead voters for the politically expedient purpose of winning the election in California. Maine voters should be aware of these swiftboating political false prophets.
Karen Ocamb is a SoCal journalist who covered last summer’s Prop 8 fight. If past is prologue, her recapping of that contest may serve as a useful reminder of what’s in store as the Question 1 contest heats up in Maine.