George Bush wanted to distract the electorate from the rising U.S. body count in Iraq, the sputtering economy and the other issues that are eroding his poll numbers. The pope wanted to distract the world’s dwindling Mass-goers from the Catholic Church’s ongoing pedophile scandals. So, natch, both seized on that old standby issue to which political and religious reactionaries have recourse when things are going badly for them: gay bashing.

Bush’s decision to push the hot-button issue of gay marriage at his Rose Garden press conference last week was fueled by the Gallup Poll released two days previously showing a dramatic “backlash” (as poll director Frank Newport put it) against gays in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision striking down the so-called sodomy laws and legalizing sex between consenting adults of the same sex.

Not only did support for same-sex civil unions drop from 49 percent in Gallup’s May poll to 40 percent, those saying “homosexuality should be considered an acceptable lifestyle” careened downward from 54 percent to 46 percent. Worse, a comfortable majority of 60 percent favoring the legalization of same-gender sex plummeted sharply to 48 percent in the wake of the Supremes’ decision. Among blacks, the drop in support for legalizing gay sex was even sharper: a whopping 23 points. (A New York Times poll released August 3 tended to confirm the backlash Gallup found on the gay-marriage issue among blacks [65-to-28 against] and Hispanics [54-to-40 against]).

Bush’s categorization of gays as “sinners” in his biblically framed announcement that he’s ordered his lawyers to figure out how to block gay marriage reflected a stepping-up of the Republicans’ gay-hostile electoral strategy. It followed GOP Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s declaration on Meet the Press a month ago that he would “absolutely” support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Frist’s surprise declaration was no accident: It was, as Howard Fineman reported in Newsweek at the time, made with “no-fingerprints support from the White House.”

Bush’s decision to surf on the anti-gay backlash also reflects the enormous pressure he’s been under from the Christian right and conservative ideologues on social issues. Both The Weekly Standard (which devoted its cover to the gay-marriage issue last week, and which has editorialized in the past that heterosexual sex within marriage is the only relationship “compatible with the Republic”) and the National Review have come out in support of the Federal Marriage Amendment, as the attempt to write discrimination into the Constitution is known. And Pat Robertson’s 700 Club prayer campaign calling on God to “remove” three Supreme Court justices in the wake of the Supremes’ legalization of gay sex was only the most off-the-wall reflection of how the right-wing Christers have taken to heart Justice Antonin Scalia’s proclamation in his sodomy-law dissent that the court has adopted “the homosexual agenda.”

Karl Rove’s strategy for Bush and the Republicans not only to win a second term for Dubya but to increase their majorities in both houses of Congress calls for energizing the Bush Bible Belt base (it was, after all, the Christian right that motored Bush’s 2000 primary victories over John McCain). The 13 states whose anti-sodomy laws were nullified by the Supremes were all states that Bush carried last time. “NASCAR Dads” have replaced soccer moms as the constituency to be chased this year, and they’re considered hostile to gays in general and gay marriage in particular. The center-right Democratic Leadership Council’s pollster, Mark Penn, has identified white men and married women as the two constituencies among whom the Democrats are weak (both happen to have high anti-gay numbers), and Howard Dean’s national identification with Vermont’s civil unions for gays (even though he did nothing to help pass the law authorizing them and signed it in a closet without the press present) is one reason the DLC has been denouncing him as a loser. In this it has been echoing Rove, who has made no secret of his preference for Dean as Bush’s November opponent next year.

As to Congress, there are only 40 swing districts in play in this election cycle, a sign that the incumbent-protection racket is alive and well. A paltry number of genuinely contested seats, to be sure, but they’re situated not in more gay-friendly urban areas but in rural-suburban districts where the Republicans expect the gay-marriage issue to cut against the Democrats. The Senate seats that are open (or expected to be) or marginal are not on gay-friendly turf, either, like Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Illinois (where half the state is rural and the urban areas are heavily devout Catholic) and Alaska. Moreover, the high negatives for gays among blacks and Hispanics in the polls — reinforced by the ladling out to conservative minority churches of political patronage disguised as “faith-based initiatives” — play into Rove’s Southern-Southwestern game plan for both Congress and Bush.

The Federal Marriage Amendment — which has been introduced in the Senate by a dozen GOPers — would, of course, not simply ban gay marriage. It would also deny to same-sex couples the “legal incidents” of marriage, meaning that civil unions would be swept away not only in Vermont but in any state that followed suit. The Senate Republican Policy Committee, chaired by hard-line conservative Jon Kyl of Arizona, on July 29 issued a policy paper describing gay marriage as a “threat” and laying out a road map, dripping with homophobia, for how to block it. And a Senate Judiciary subcommittee headed by John Cronyn of Texas has announced that after the August congressional recess it will take up gay marriage — which, Cronyn thundered, “We must take care to do whatever it takes” to stop.

Rove & Co. are privately rooting for a victory by the plaintiffs in a lawsuit by gay couples demanding the right to marry that Massachusetts’ Supreme Court will decide this summer. If, as Bay State court watchers think is likely, the court decides for the plaintiffs, that will make gay marriage the social issue of the 2004 campaign. And if Gallup is right, it just might work.

Of course, after every great national debate about gays — like the one over “don’t ask, don’t tell” — there’s a sharp increase in physical, violent gay bashing, as expressions of anti-gay prejudice leak from the TV screen to confirm the bigotry of the primitive. Bush’s anti-gay demagogy is, quite literally, dangerous. Sadly, it may take a few more dead Matthew Shepherds to swing the pendulum back to the good old American principle of “live and let live.”

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