Looks like Karl Rove found his 4 million evangelicals. That was the number of fundamentalist Christians Rove always estimated didnt show up at the polls in 2000, and it turned out to be Bushs rough margin in the popular vote. Thus, with a failed war sliding into chaos, and loose nuclear material dotting the Russian countryside still waiting, three years after 9/11, to be snugly fitted in the proverbial terrorists briefcase, the most important election in decades was apparently won on the non-issue of gay baiting. Or at least we thought it was a non-issue; surprising everyone, the top issue in exit polls was moral values, and judging by the 11 states that approved constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage by mostly huge margins, moral values is shorthand for saving Christendom from the homos.
Those state initiatives fueled the mobilization no one expected, although in hindsight the tactic seems obvious. The Sunday before the election, I spotted a couple of Republican staffers pretending to be gay-pride activists outside a Democratic polling place in an African-American part of Fort Lauderdale. Trying to fool the black Baptist churchgoing crowd with their favorite new social wedge issue, the Republicans in poor political drag paced the line of voters with signs yelling, Vote for Kerry vote for gay adoption. We chased them away fairly easily, and I wrote at the time how the stunt seemed so feckless that it smelled of desperation.
Who knew that encounter would become emblematic of the election? What looked like a minor incident turned out to be widespread in many states, and that was just the icebergs tip; beneath the surface, opposition to gay marriage galvanized a massive person-to-person get-out-the-vote effort that probably tipped the scales, certainly so in Ohio, where the most stringent of the anti-gay state constitutional amendments passed by 62 to 38 and where one in four voters identified themselves as evangelicals. That gave Bush another squeaker of an electoral victory. It also padded the popular vote with that extra few million, the so-called mandate, much of it accrued in those other states with similar amendments on the ballot solid red territory where Bushs victory was axiomatic but the evangelicals came clamoring out of the woodwork in unexpected droves, eager for the opportunity to explicitly deny rights to their fellow citizens. It was a cynical ploy, if effective, and one that shamefully marked the first time since the founding fathers deemed African-American men three-fifths of a human being that constitutional law has been so misused. So much for Christian agape.
I was surprised but not shocked. In my political travels, I have come across countless people whose politics is motivated entirely by a literal reading of the Scriptures in translation, of course; it would be asking too much for the literalists to interest themselves in the Hebrew Bible itself or the New Testaments original Greek. Its amazing, really, to what extent these people live their lives and want to dictate ours by extracting a moral compass from a game of theological telephone.
Take Phil, of Phils Calzone Factory in Fort Lauderdale, where I had lunch a few days before the election. Like many evangelicals, Phil was as deeply irrational as he was patient and courteous, coming out to sit down with me and solicit my opinion although his effort was probably an attempt to see if I could be converted. Ultimately, the entire discussion was moot, because all that mattered to Phil was Revelation. This is why Phil wasnt really that worried about the second Intifada, or Pakistan breaking apart and the fundamentalists getting ahold of its nuclear weapons, because those are favorable omens, signposts of the accelerating End of Days. For Phil and his co-religionists, there is no distinction between prophecy and self-fulfilling prophecy.
Those of us who rarely leave the comfort of Peets Coffee or venture east of the 57 have no idea how prevalent the Phils are. I ran into representatives of the Eschatological Vote all over the country, even in the house of my host in Hollywood, Florida, an attorney named Paul Hancock, who had argued Bush v. Gore for the Democrats in front of the Florida Supreme Court in 2000. There, in Pauls living room, I was accosted on my last day in Florida by the woman who walks his dogs, who waited all of 30 seconds before announcing that she is the reincarnation of Jesus.
What do you do? she asked. I said I was covering the election.
Im not allowed to say what I do, she said at first, sounding like a child who had been scolded many times for eagerly alerting the neighbors that she had lice. Unable to contain herself, she filled me in anyway: Dont let Paul know I told you, but Im the vessel through which Christ helped re-elect President Bush. I noted that she was wearing head-to-toe denim, including her hat, the same basic outfit worn by one of the female gay baiters at the polling station in Fort Lauderdale a few days before.