Strengthening Marriage to retain the White House and re-enslave women

By Patrick O’Heffernan

Dr. O’Heffernan is a Senior Research Fellow at the Commonweal Institute and a Founding Member of the International Museum of Women in San Francisco. A former Professor of Political Science and Emmy-winning television producer, he now blogs at where he seeks an aswer to questions on religion and society, and women’s role in creating a sustainable world. His full bio is here.

Strengthening marriage to retain the White House and re-enslave women

The conservative communications machine is wasting no time in using the 2004 election victory to reshape the nation into their image of a male dominated, born-again Christian household. Within two weeks of the election, they launched a campaign to “stop the erosion of marriage”. Unable to explain just exactly how same-sex marriage threatens heterosexual marriage, and stung by the findings of a recent National Center for Health Studies report that marriage is strongest and divorces least common in liberal states, conservatives have devised a new theme of “protecting marriage” as the next big Christian base-exciter. It is also the next salvo in their campaigns to retain the White House and re-enslave women.

The conservatives have sent out Bryce Christensen, a Southern Utah University English professor who moonlights as a mouthpiece for conservative anti-feminine organizations to launch the attack


In articles carried by the AP and many papers in the weeks after the election, Bryce told reporters “protection of marriage is now the watchword for many activists fighting to prevent gays and lesbians from marrying.” He goes on to rail about the deterioration of traditional marriage because of gay attacks, and mentions other causes such as divorce, abortion, and the dilution of women’s traditional roles.

The real strategy – re-enslave women

Out of public view, Bryce tells conservatives something different –he lays out the real reason for the protection of marriage campaign. Writing in the ultra-conservative magazine , The Family in America, he says that he and other conservatives behind the campaign are not really concerned about same-sex marriage; they really want to force women back into submissive, trapped, traditional wife roles like those described in the Old Testament of the Bible. Their real goal is to roll back the last 40 years of the women’s rights successes, end no-fault divorce so women have to stay marriage whether they like it or not, close daycare facilities, and defund all domestic and international family planning programs in order to get women back under the thumb of men where they belong . To speed up this re-enslavement of women, they advocate against pension benefits and Social Security which they claim have led to the breakdown of the intergenerational family as seniors are no longer dependent on the goodwill of their grown children and can’t be exploited as baby sitters so wives can have more babies.

Next, the nation’s Catholic bishops recently announced an unholy alliance with the same born-again Christians who consider Catholics “unchurched and unsaved”. They will launch a campaign remarkably similar to that of the Christian Right against “divorce, birth control, gay marriage, premarital sex, unmarried co-habitation, and deliberately childless couples. Noting that marriage has declined by more than 40% in the last 30 years”, Bishop Kevin Boland said the Church will join with evangelicals to begin parish programs and national advertising campaigns designed to rebuild the traditional Christian marriage” (He did not speculate on the notion that allowing gays to marry would also dramatically improve the marriage rate). The message to women was clear: your place is to be married, serve your husbands and have as many babies as possible; you can’t get divorced, you can’t plan your family, and you can’t complain. And in case you forgot, you can’t become a priest either.

The Right Wing Infrastructure and long term strategy

These messages were echoed across the conservative infrastructure. The Howard Institute, Focus on the Family ,Traditional Values Coalition, the Eagle Forum, and dozens of Christian websites and organizations – the entire web of institutions built by the religious right and conservatives over the past 30 years– have joined the campaign. They have begun echoing its message that policies like no-fault divorce, Title IX, birth control, Social Security, and government-paid child care are destroying marriage and must be ended.

So what is going on here? Is it a coincidence that so many conservative organizations have suddenly discovered marriage as something that needs fixing. Is this a genuine effort to slow down the divorce rate and encourage more couples to marry and have families. Or is there an underlying, darker strategy?

There are actually three underlying – and definitely darker – strategies, all working simultaneously in the coordinated right wing marriage campaigns, each reinforcing the other. First, the Right is building on the success of the wedge issue of gay marriage to keep their Christian base engaged and active in the 2006 and 2008 elections. Second, by framing their actions as strengthening marriage, they are relying on polls and market research that shows women respond positively to words and actions seeking to improve personal relationships – especially marriage. They are betting the strengthening of marriage campaign will shift some female votes away from Democrats. And third, they are able to quietly and deceptively move on a bundle of policies designed to blunt the progress women have made on equal rights in order to force them back into second class status, a central goal of the Christian Right.

How are they doing it? The “gay issue” was created by Jerry Falwell and the Christian Right after the fall of the Soviet Union to give Conservatives another enemy to replace the Communists. Knowing that fear and hate mobilize better than love and security, the he cobbled together a number of Bible verses and claimed the he had just discovered “the gay agenda” to take over the country and turn our children into “homos” . But the issue did not get the kind of passionate traction among the faithful needed to win elections until the gay campaign for equal rights reached for marriage. Since most people in the country know someone who is gay either personally or through the media, gay hate was a hard sell beyond the extremes; but marriage touched everyone. As George Lakoff notes, it is central to our culture, it is a “big deal”. And it is an especially big deal to straight white men who subconsciously see gays as threatening to their masculinity, and gay unions as threatening to their male-dominant view of marriage. The conservatives correctly counted on a phony threat to marriage to create fear and votes where Biblical passages had failed.

Redefining marriage to create a new enemy

But their electoral and legislative successes may ultimately deny the Christian right the use of gays as the new enemy. If they pass the misnamed Defense of Marriage Amendment supported by Bush and more state initiatives to ban gay marriage, they lose the issue. Barring unforeseen circumstances, with marriage “protected” from gays, history and changing demographics indicate that it will be still be hard to sell gay hate beyond the religious extremes. So where can they find an enemy that will let them keep the fear factor up and the base turnout high? They found it in marriage, specifically in the kind of diverse, nurturing, equal partnership marriages that are becoming the norm in the 21st century.

Conservatives are strategically working to narrowly define the word and concept of marriage as a 1950’s style heterosexual, male-dominated, wife at home and submissive, kids obedient institution – the so-called “godly marriage”. This automatically positions today’s more accommodating and nurturing equal partnership marriages and unmarried unions as threats to “real” marriage. This gives them their fear issue – fear that marriage is being undermined, not only by gays, but by feminists, abortion , birth control, child care, Social Security, Title IX, pensions, and welfare – all perennial right wing targets.

The final piece of the strategy is push for “reforms” to “strengthen” marriage. Chief among these is an attack on no-fault divorce. National Christian Right organizations are currently working to get the states to replace no-fault laws with divorce regimes that make it very difficult for a couple, and especially a woman, to end a marriage. Abstinence-only sex education programs are being pushed into public schools that teach, among other things, women should stay home and have children and be submissive to their husbands to guarantee a good marriage. The Catholic Bishops have announced their desire for legislation to restrict and eventually ban birth control. Focus on the Family has called for a roll-back on sexual discrimination laws that seek to equalize women’s and men’s’ pay and advancement, and an end to programs that make it easier for a working mother (or father) to care for a family, such as after school programs, child care support, and parental leave. A coalition of religious and conservative groups have convinced the Department of Education to circulate new regulations that would dilute Title IX and legalize single-sex schools that fundamentalists can use to track girls into weddings and away from college.

The Right’s goals retain the White House and re-enslave women

The goals of these strategies are both short and long term. In the short term, the conservatives and the Christian Right are building a bundle of issues around marriage that they can use to excite and possibly expand their evangelical base without turning off non-evangelical Christians. After all, who is against strengthening marriage?

Additionally, by disguising their intentions as support for marriage, they hope to fool women, a traditionally Democratic constituency, into supporting Republicans in the 2006 and 2008 elections. The conservative communications machine is now using these messages to define marriage their way, create the “conventional wisdom” that marriage is in trouble (it is, but mostly in the red states and the Bible-belt), and that reforms are needed in government policy to protect it.

In the long term, the right’s goals are more Machiavellian. Married women, especially married women in male-dominate marriages, tend to vote for Republicans somewhat more than single women do, especially if their husbands are Republican. Conservatives have calculated that narrowing women’s options and channeling them into “godly” marriages where they are re-enslaved as “submissive wives” will increase female Republican voters over the long term. And in the very long term, daughters of these marriages will be raised to forgo college and get married and have large families – the profile of Republican voting women, thus guaranteeing a growing population of re-enslaved female Republican voters

A Progressive Counter Strategy

What can we progressive do to protect partnership marriages and blunt the religious right’s drive to re-enslave women and increase female Republican vote counts? Launch a counter strategy with both long and short term objectives.

First, in the short term confuse and divide the opposition with a Sanctity of Marriage Movement seeking legislation to remove the state completely from marriage, leaving it to religious organizations. Argue that the Constitution and the Bible (render unto Cesar…) requires that states should ratify only civil union contracts, (which Constitutionally should be available to everyone), and that religious organizations (including pagan, Wicca, Universal Life, etc.) are the only institutions that should be able to conduct marriage ceremonies and “bless the marriage”. This would compete with the Protection of Marriage amendment drive, set off a dogfight inside the religious right between the purists who believe that marriage is sacred and should be the purview of churches and the cynics want to use government to control marriage, and give Democrats great campaign fodder in the 2006 mid-term elections (“he voted against the sanctity of marriage – shame on him.”).

Reframe the issue from strengthening traditional marriage under threat from corrupting policies and practices, to protecting the modern, nurturing partnership marriage from religious extremists who want to use it to turn back the clock to the Old Testament and re-enslave women. Market and message test the Conceptual lumping of anti-abortion, anti-birth control, anti-Title IX, pro-strict-father family, pro-marriage amendment, and pro- “godly-marriage” groups together as the re-enslavement lobby whose real purpose is to take women back to “biblical times” when they were virtual slaves. Explore themes needed to reposition “godly marriages” as “godforsaken marriages” that result in the joyless separation of husbands and wives in resentful warring camps while the outcome of a partnership marriage is a strong, loving family. Emphasize that “marriage is for men too” giving them the opportunity to enjoy child raising in partnership with their wives (why should the women have all the fun?) to undercut the Right’s cold-hearted strict father message. Test and offer a marriage model that is a respite for the husbands trapped in “re-enslavement marriages” – husbands who are overworked, distant from their families, at war with their wives, and forced by re-enslavement marriage lobby to shoulder all the work and all the burdens. Aim part of the message at young Republican fathers by featuring poster men from the 3 million American men who stay at home to care for their family and love it—and whose masculinity is not threatened by doing so.

Most importantly, build a long term progressive marriage infrastructure by bringing together progressive think tanks, mainline churches, spiritual organizations, and women’s and men’s groups to fashion and endlessly repeat the positive message of a partnership marriage and the threat to women and men of the re-enslavement lobby. Fund this piece of the infrastructure to launch a Partnership Marriage Campaign that uses market research, word and theme testing to flood the nation with effective books, articles, workshops, and media spokespersons on the joys and strengths of nurturing partnership marriages. Fund studies and reports on satisfaction within partnership marriages and the reduction of abortions and divorce among partnership marriages. Develop male and female spokespersons who can offer advice to married couples on radio and television and in books and advice columns on how to achieve and enjoy a partnership marriage (including sexual joys!) , and how to avoid the re-enslavement lobby which is trying to take the fun out of marriage by driving a wedge between husbands and wives. Use this message to undercut the Right’s attempt to capture the word “moral” for themselves and reduce it to gay marriage, abortion and stem cells.

The linchpin of this strategy is the long term, strategic, unrestricted funding to a key core of progressive think tanks, single issue advocacy organizations, communications organizations, and progressive religious organizations. This “mini-infrastructure” would work to push back the message of the Religious Right re-enslavement lobby that has been strategically built by conservatives over the past quarter century. Key to this is strategic funding by progressive donors. Strategically placed, long term, unrestricted grants to a cluster of existing and new organizations pulled together and tightly coordinated by a critical think tank and by the donors can blunt this latest conservative assault on freedom and on women. With the correct strategy and strategic support, progressives can strengthen both marriage and the rights of women and hand the conservatives and the religious right a humiliating defeat.