Tying the Not
Surina Khan is Vice President of Programs for the Women’s Foundation of California. She is a former research analyst with Political Research Associates and a member of the Editorial Board of the Public Eye.
On June 26, 2008, 1,000 ministers, mostly from evangelical congregations, met by conference call to discuss tactics for passing Proposition 8, a ballot initiative to ban same sex marriage in California by amending the state constitution. The call was convened by Pastor Jim Garlow from the 2,500-member Skyline Church in San Diego County. The ministers on the call had a far reach: they lead congregations representing about one million people, and Garlow alone provides radio commentary to 629 stations each day.
The strategy session, which included input from lawyers and political consultants, was one of many efforts in a broad-based organizing campaign by the Christian Right to galvanize support for Proposition 8.
Proposition 8 passed in the November 2008 election by four points, with 52 percent of voters supporting it and 48 percent opposing it. The Right was successful in their multipronged approach to oppose same sex marriage in a state that has national significance in the marriage equality movement. Simply put, they out organized the No on 8 Campaign.
An analysis of how the Right succeeded in their efforts reveals a campaign of misinformation and unlikely alliances that took years of planning, dating back to at least the mid-1990s. It also reveals a shrewd, media-savvy, well-funded and well-organized grassroots movement that understood California’s complex geographic and political landscape. The Yes on 8 campaign effectively reached California’s diverse racial and ethnic communities with materials translated into at least fourteen different languages including Spanish, Hmong, Vietnamese, Chinese, Filipino, Samoan, Punjabi, Farsi, Russian, and Polish.
Garlow told the ministers on the conference call that on the weekend before the election, his goal was to fill Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego and other amphitheaters with people praying for a ban on gay marriage. To this end, they organized a 40-day fasting period leading up to election day, along with 100 days of prayer.
“We are working with all the churches who are willing to work with us,” noted Frank Schubert, the campaign manager for Yes on 8. “It’s woven together to form what we hope will be the largest grass-roots campaign in California history.”
A Broad Network of Support
The weaving together of the campaign involved a broad network of support and funding that included prominent Christian Right organizations including Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America, and the Family Research Council.
The campaign raised more than $40 million from conservative supporters across the country. Much of the funding came from prominent donors like the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the Roman Catholic conservative group, Knights of Columbus. Proposition 8 also received donations from Elsa Broekhuizen, the widow of Michigan-based Christian Right supporter Edgar Prince and the mother of Erik Prince, founder of the controversial private military firm, Blackwater.
The initiative’s third largest private donor was Howard F. Ahmanson Jr., reclusive heir to the Home Savings of America banking fortune and a trustee of the Ahmanson Foundation. Ahmanson donated $900,000 to the passage of Proposition 8. In a 1985 interview with the Orange County Register, Ahmanson summarized his political agenda: “My goal is the total integration of biblical law into our lives.”
Ahmanson has been behind campaigns to teach “intelligent design” in public school classrooms and to rollback affirmative action in California. He has been a supporter of anti-gay issues for many years. Ahmanson’s most controversial philanthropy relates to his funding of the religious empire of Rousas John Rushdoony, an evangelical theologian who advocated placing the United States under the control of a Christian theocracy which includes death by stoning for practicing homosexuals.
The Yes on 8 campaign set out to change how the initiative process can further a conservative movement agenda. Campaign organizers built a well-funded operation that rivaled any major electoral campaign in its scope and complexity. They also built a powerful, religious coalition that centrally involved the Roman Catholic Church, Protestant evangelicals and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In an internal memo dating back to 1997, the LDS proposed a coalition with the Catholic Church in order to stem what they saw as the rising tide of gay marriage in Hawaii and California. In the memo, a high-ranking Mormon leader discussed approaches for challenging gay marriage and noted that anti-gay marriage legislation would not be a successful pursuit.
The memo notes that a referendum, while expensive, would be the only route. It advocates for an alliance with the Catholic Church in order to launch a successful campaign against gay marriage. “The Church should be in a coalition and not out front by itself," the memo notes. "The public image of the Catholic Church is higher than our Church.... If we get into this, they are the ones with which to join."
The memo notes that in order to win the battle against gay marriage, “there may have to be certain legal rights recognized for unmarried people such as hospital visitation so that opponents in the legislature come away with something.” The Right was willing to concede some rights for gays in an effort to defeat same sex marriage.
The fact that the coalition to define marriage in California as the union between "one man and one woman" was anchored by a church whose founder claimed 33 wives did not seem to deter their ability to wage a successful campaign. Nor it seems did the fact that the coalition — which framed Prop 8 as a fight to protect California's children — was quietly knit together by the Catholic archbishop of San Francisco, who once excused the molestation of children at the hands of a pedophile priest as mere "horseplay." But once the Mormons joined the effort, they quickly established themselves as "the foundation of the campaign."
The Yes on 8 coalition promoted a staggering misinformation campaign. Multiple advertisements told voters that without Proposition 8, their churches would be forced to perform same sex unions and be stripped of their tax-exempt status; that schools would teach children to practice homosexuality; and that even President-elect (then candidate) Barack Obama had stated during his campaign that he did not favor gay marriage (although Obama did come out in opposition to Proposition 8). Obama’s statement against gay marriage was circulated in a flier by the Yes on 8 campaign, targeting African-American households. The campaign also used Obama’s voice in a statewide robo-call. This kind of outreach and organizing in communities of color was particularly effective.
Perhaps understanding that public perception had shifted significantly in support of LGBTQ people and marriage equality since Proposition 22 in 2000 when 61 percent of voters voted to ban same sex marriage in California, the campaign did not put out a message of overt hate against lesbian and gay people. Instead their messaging centered on not taking away rights for gays and lesbians. “Gay couples in domestic partnerships have and will continue to have the same legal rights as married spouses. We’re not here to stop anyone from expressing their commitment or responsibility to another. We’re simply here to protect the definition of marriage to what the majority of California voters (and all of history) have decided it should be – a union between a man and a woman.” This strategy allowed the Christian Right to attract a moderate base that may not have taken a hardline position against LGBTQ people, positioning themselves as being compassionate towards gays and lesbians while trying to hold onto the “sanctity of traditional marriage.”
The Campaign’s messaging centered on children and the harm that would come to them if same sex marriage passed. This framing was a compelling one for their base, especially when coupled with the message that no rights would be taken away from gays and lesbians if Proposition 8 passed. The campaign insisted on the falsehood that if Proposition 8 did not pass, children would be forced to learn about gay marriage in schools. “If the same sex marriage ruling is not overturned, teachers will be required to teach young children that there is no difference between gay marriage and traditional marriage.”
One press release noted, “[San Francisco] Mayor Gavin Newsom made it perfectly clear for parents throughout the state that the target is not just marriage for gay activists, they have also set their sites [sic] on our schools.”
Mainstream outlets like the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle countered these falsehoods as did the No on 8 Campaign, but with little impact. The misinformation messaging had taken root, in churces across the state, in rural, mostly white, communities and in many communities of color.
Road to Inequity
The Yes on 8 Campaign understood that to win in California required campaigning in both urban and rural areas of the state as well as doing outreach to youth. The campaign effectively used media technologies and far-reaching social networking sites including Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. A Facebook group promoting Proposition 8 has more than 60,000 members. The Yes on 8 website made it simple for anyone to copy a sidebar or graphic to be displayed on websites and other locations. Unbeknownst to them, some gay bloggers were surprised and many appalled that their sites featured this sidebar.
They also went to small towns and big cities across the state. In October, the campaign organized a bus tour that began in Sacramento and ended in San Diego. Rally stops during the tour included Chico, Oakland, Salinas, Fresno, Modesto, Bakersfield, Lancaster, Los Angeles, Montclair, Indio, El Centro, Camarillo and Fullerton. With the exception of Oakland and Los Angeles, a majority of voters in these regions supported the proposition.
Organizing in churches was a key strategy. The Yes on 8 Campaign gave very specific instructions to churches on how to organize their congregations to support the initiative.
Throughout the summer, Yes on 8 had more than 100,000 volunteers knocking on doors in every zip code in the state which gave them an enormous grassroots advantage. Central to their base of support were Christian people who they were able to organize through churches. According to the Campaign, they visited 70 percent of all California households in person, and contacted another 15 percent by phone. If these numbers are to be believed, the campaign's get-out-the-vote effort was equally impressive. The weekend before the vote, the Campaign’s volunteers went door to door, speaking to supporters and directing them to the right precinct locations. On election day Yes on 8 had 100,000 people — five per precinct — checking voter rolls and contacting supporters who hadn't shown up to vote.
Nearly every single television station in San Diego covered the end of the bus tour and along the way the Campaign was successful in generating media stories in television, radio, and newspapers. In addition to these stories, the Campaign had a well-developed strategy of buying media ads in a range of ethnic media outlets. Early on in their efforts, the Yes on 8 Campaign purchased ad space in Chinese, African-American, Spanish, and Korean media. In addition to purchasing these ethnic media advertisements, the Campaign held massive rallies for Christians in communities of color.
Yes on 8 placed advertisements on Latino television and radio statewide with prominent Latino spokespeople and religious leaders voicing support for the proposition. In the African-American community, the Campaign was successful in building alliances with pastors who used their sermons to galvanize their congregations to support the Proposition. The Asian community also was well-represented with advertisements in Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and South Asian media markets.
For years, the California Christian Right apparatus, long hampered by nativism and racism, had been unable to make inroads into communities of color.
For years, the California Christian Right apparatus, long hampered by nativism and racism, had been unable to make inroads into communities of color—a demographic necessity in a state that is more than 50 percent people of color and growing. With Proposition 8, they finally took hold in building a base of support in communities of color. This base as well as the organizing they did in rural, mostly White communities will be important for the Christian Right as they move forward to advance a broader agenda.
The Christian Right in California made a strategic shift in sharpening its “family values” focus on sexuality and marriage. This shift is likely to be effective for the long term political objectives of the Right which include an assault on the legal protections against discrimination for LGBTQ people. The coalition of “family values” organizations have used an anti-LGBTQ message to organize and mobilize conservative constituents, recruit followers, and raise money. The broader agenda that the Christian Right will continue to pursue will promote Christian nationalism, an ideology that seeks to use laws and regulations to promote fundamentalist Christian values on the nation. This is an agenda that seeks to eliminate the constitutional wall separating church and state in pursuit of an antidemocratic and authoritarian agenda.
With Proposition 8, the Christian Right was successful in furthering a divisive political agenda that offers fundamentalist Christian dogma and heterosexuality as the only acceptable norms.
The Yes on 8 campaign was able to draw upon the complex movement of infrastructure organizations that make up the Right, including publishing houses, legal organizations, think tanks, mass-based organizations, and funding organizations that helped provide the resources needed for the movement to advance their agenda and secure a base of support in California
Lessons to Learn
The Christian Right in California and elsewhere is seeking to enshrine discrimination through constitutional amendments. Like California, the Right was successful in passing a constitutional amendment in Florida that eliminated marriage for same sex couples. And in Arkansas the Right was successful in its campaign to take away the right of same sex couples and most straight unmarried couples to adopt children or be foster parents. And yet, it’s important to recognize that the Christian Right’s opposition to same sex marriage is only one part of a broader pro- (heterosexual) marriage, “family values” agenda that includes abstinence-only sex education, stringent divorce laws, coercive marriage promotion policies directed toward women on welfare, and attacks on reproductive freedom.
The LGBTQ and progressive movement’s response must remain focused on the leadership of the right-wing movement which has successfully organized in diverse communities and built broad-based alliances. Demonizing the followers and accusing them of voting for hate will not advance a progressive agenda.
The LGBTQ movement has focused on marriage equality as a stand-alone issue and with Proposition 8 missed the opportunity to organize.
The LGBTQ movement has focused on marriage equality as a stand-alone issue and with Proposition 8 missed the opportunity to organize, particularly in communities of color and build a broad coalition that addresses the range of issues affecting families, including economic security, immigration status, incarceration, and health benefits for non-married family members.
The Right’s success with Proposition 8 leaves marriage equality efforts with much to learn and hope for. The youth vote is one reason to be hopeful. Sixty-one percent of voters younger than 30 opposed Proposition 8, while 61 percent of those older than 65 supported it. Generational shifts are likely to benefit LGBTQ efforts. For future efforts, LGBTQ advocates and organizers will have to undo the false assumption that most people of color voted for Proposition 8, particularly when many youth of color did not. While it’s true that the Right was successful in organizing in communities of color, it is not accurate to say that people of color are the reason that Proposition 8 passed. Blaming communities of color, as some segments of the LGBTQ movement have done, will not move us where we need to go.
The Right’s success with the passage of Proposition 8 should be a call to the LGBTQ movement to build alliances across issues and constituencies.
Our current legal and economic structures favor straight married couples over other kinds of families. Meanwhile, a 30-year political assault on the social safety net has left households with more burdens and constraints and fewer resources. There is, however, potential to create new structures that make it easier for all kinds of families to provide one another with adequate material support. A progressive response can find ways to recognize and accommodate all family structures with our public policies in order to build more stable families and communities. A continuing effort to diversify and democratize partnership and household recognition may have more staying power and potential for success in the longer term.
The Right’s success with the passage of Proposition 8 should be a call to the LGBTQ movement to build alliances across issues and constituencies. The efforts towards same sex marriage should be part of a larger effort to strengthen the stability and security of diverse households and families.
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