The Marriage Campaign

01 November 2004

Anti-gay marriage proposals may draw voters to the polls on Nov. 2, but the media storms that surround them drives democracy out of the story.

By Jason Boog

Christian American
Family Association of Michigan

I was furious when the Catholic Church tried to tell my hometown parish how to vote. They played a tape-recorded homily by Detroit’s Cardinal Adam Maida one Sunday, urging Michigan Catholics to support Proposal Two this Tuesday, a marriage-ban ballot proposal that reads: “The union of one man and one woman in marriage shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union.”

But until this year, Michigan gay activists weren’t really trying to win the right to marry. They were focused on smaller, more feasible gains: partner benefits, anti-discrimination legislation. The gay marriage ban proposal, in fact, isn’t a response to Michigan’s political reality. It’s part of a war being fought across the country for control of the media message.

Anti-gay activists want to turn back the perceived same-sex marriage momentum broadcast from Massachusetts and San Francisco. And gay and lesbian activists have no choice but to fight back, which means redirecting their efforts from in-the-trenches political work to mass media campaigns in states such as Michigan.

Michigan is full of tangible religious and political contradictions. My hometown is one of a nest of old German Catholic villages in West Michigan, a couple freeway exits away from Dutch Calvinist country. Across the state you have Detroit and Ann Arbor, land of union workers, activists, and hippies.

Which means that it takes a lot of work to make Michigan agree on anything, much less the overwhelming question of gay marriages. Ten other states are struggling with similar initiatives, but I know Michigan the best. So I decided to become a culture war correspondent reporting on the public-relations writers, commentators, and reporters — all the people who help mixed-up Michigan figure out what it wants, and why it wants it right now.

The real muscle in the campaign comes from the Catholic Church. According to campaign contributions catalogued by the Secretary of State, the Archdiocese of Detroit donated $270,000 to Citizens for the Protection of Marriage — the activist group that petitioned for the ballot initiative. The Diocese of Lansing added another $133,350 and the Diocese of Grand Rapids chipped in $106,000. All told, Michigan Catholic dioceses have put $700,000 toward the amendment, the majority of the $1.1 million raised by Citizens for the Protection of Marriage. It’s a sum that rankles some Michigan Catholics who question their church’s priorities — and itsefficacy.

Judged on the polls alone, it might seem like money ill-spent. A Gallup poll in September found that among “likely voters” in Michigan, 51% would vote against the measure, and 45% in favor. But a Detroit News poll in October had 64% in favor of the marriage ban, and 26% against Proposal Two. Michigan seems confused. However, the Catholic Church knows how to persuade.

Kim Kozlowski has covered the religion beat at The Detroit News for the last five years, and she’s written about the Church’s forays into Michigan politics. “They generally win,” she told me. Kozlowski once mapped the Church’s political record in Michigan. Over the last 30 years, the Church intervened in many political debates, including abortionprivate school funding,gun control, and assisted suicide.

Kozlowski only counted three election issue losses for the Catholic Church in Michigan since 1970.

How does the Church win? Morality and media. The Church has an unequivocal moral position, which helps sway undecideds. But it also has a first-rate media machine. Sunday homilies packed with a given message resonate throughout the week in Catholic households, and believers come home from church with an armload of political literature.

That literature reflects the media savvy long attributed to evangelical conservatives. As a result, the traditional German Catholics living around my hometown have become as united — and outspoken — as their Protestant neighbors up the expressway.

Proposal Two banded Michigan Catholics and evangelical Christians into a media coalition preaching the same black-and-white message. This fall, the evangelical Christian American Family Association of Michigan ran a 30-second television spot. It featured three spouses reciting simple definitions of heterosexual marriage, while the glossy camera pans over their families. “One Man. One Woman. Vote yes on Proposal Two,” concludes the ad, mimicking the curt language of the amendment.

Meanwhile, the Michigan Catholic Conference spreads that same biblical opposition to gay marriages. Many Catholics receive Focus, a policy booklet distributed by the Conference. Focus printed 200,000 copies of a special marriage amendment issue, and mailed copies to every parish and legislator in Michigan.

Nationally, Baptist Press News may have provided the most voluminous coverage of the debate. The site is patterned after the Associated Press, offering Christian conservatives a news alternative. Nearly 6,000 church websites all over the United States subscribe to their headline service. The website contains 297 articles featuring the phrase, “same-sex ‘marriage,’” complete with irony quotes.

But BPN’s projection of the risk of same-sex “marriage” is painfully earnest. In “How Would Same-Sex ‘Marriage’ Legalization Affect America?” BPN writer Michael Foust imagines a world where gays could marry: “Businesses giving benefits to their married employees would be required to extend those benefits to same-sex couples — perhaps even if they have a religious objection. Bridal magazines, Oprah-type television programs and newspaper advice columns would cater to same-sex couples.”

BPN’s gigantic spread of articles exaggerates the problem. Indeed, many of them seem one step away from the Rick Santorum’s now classic argument against same-sex marriage: if two men can marry, why not a man and his dog?

Their readers keep reading because they need to be reassured. Catholics, evangelicals, and all the traditionalists in Michigan are looking for reassurance that their values still matter. The media campaigns that attend the various referendums serve that purpose, regardless of whether the actual proposal succeeds — as one known as Measure 36 is likely to do in Oregon — or fails, as polls suggest Proposal 2 will in Michigan.

The really ironic thing, of course, is that most gay rights activists in Michigan didn’t think they could get married anytime soon. They were too busy fighting for tolerance and benefits. But the marriage amendment forced both sides to act dramatically and early.

And, on the pro-gay and lesbian side, defensively. In an ad sponsored by the Coalition for a Fair Michigan, the narrative revolves around a straight-seeming guy taking a hard second look at the proposal — metaphorically, of course. A suburban average-Joe studies the engine of a shiny red car. “Before you buy a car, you look under the hood,” says a gruff-voiced narrator. Then a montage of clippings drifts across the screen. Detroit Free Press: “Proposal Two is flawed.”Lansing State Journal: “The language of the amendment doesn’t tell voters everything it will do.”

The Coalition runs on a tight budget. Their biggest donations were $33,980 from the Human Rights Campaign and $22,995 from the Pride Source Media group. These major gay rights groups had to spread their funds very thin this year, fighting marriage amendments in ten other states.

And yet, while conservative groups managed to win the funding battle, they certainly didn’t win editorial-support. The Coalition website currently boasts 21 newspaper endorsements. From The Grand Rapids Press to The Detroit Free Press, all the major papers urged readers to vote against the marriage ban — focusing on side-benefits sacrificed by the amendment. For instance, many unions would lose heterosexual domestic-partnership rights and the University of Michigan would scrap same-sex partnership benefits.

All the editorials orbited around the same point: the over-simplified wording of the amendment swept aside too many other benefits from less controversial reforms. The hard-edged language of the marriage amendment knocks down domestic partnership benefits and gay-tolerance laws — issues that could actually help these two groups co-exist without ever legislating gay marriage.

In Catholic pulpits and Christian conservative literature, meanwhile, the campaign beats home the idea that same-sex marriages are morally forbidden, never addressing the simpler concessions of gay rights activists in Michigan.

That tactic has worked in at least one regard: Even the media narrative now ignores the middle ground in favor of simple, us vs. them stories. At the end of September, The New York Timesran an 11-state wrap of the various marriage initiatives around the United States, leading with the stark headline: “Voters in 10 of 11 States Are Seen as Likely to Pass Bans of Same-Sex Marriages.” They counted Michigan as the one state where the amendment would not pass.

But Paul Schindler, editor of Gay City News, a New York-based weekly, is skeptical of theTimes’ approach, which he says ignores the complexities of the issue. “You can’t comprehensibly cover 11 different states at once,” Schindler told me. “That’s a little glib for a political story. If something like that gets out there, you have to answer.”

The Times’ report cited a few of the conflicting polls in Michigan, and Schindler questioned the way that some of these polls occur. “Gay marriage can be a flashpoint issue. You can’t just ask, “How do you feel about gay people getting married tomorrow?’ Present it as a welcoming and warm issue.”

That may be a little much to expect from polls trying to maintain the veneer of neutrality, but there’s no questioning the fact that on this issue, “neutrality” skews the story rightward. While most people in small-town Michigan don’t want to see gay marriages, they probably would support legislation allowing smaller, essential changes — health insurance plans or bargaining rights for a same-sex couples, for instance. Just like those poll questions that demand an all-or-nothing opinion, the media furor over gay marriage in Michigan threatens to force compromise out of the democratic equation.

Jason Boog is a writer living in New York. He last wrote for The Revealer from the floor of theRepublican Convention.