Prominent social conservatives may decide to back Fred Thompson's campaign for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. Or they may not. But they ought to think twice before basing their decision solely on the federal marriage amendment.
Last week, the Politico reported that "Thompson's stance on gay marriage" is "likely to deny him any unified backing" from the religious conservative organizations that comprise the Arlington Group. While not all group members share this assessment, both Tony Perkins and Paul Weyrich were quoted expressing concern that Thompson might be too soft on protecting marriage.
Most religious conservatives support a constitutional amendment that would prevent states or the federal government from defining marriage as anything other than a union between a man and a woman. Thompson prefers an amendment that would prevent state or federal judges from imposing same-sex nuptials on an unwilling public, focusing on judicial activism rather than the definition of marriage.
Thompson believes that his preferred amendment would effectively address the concerns of religious conservatives while remaining more consistent with federalism. His critics on the right believe his is a procedural approach that understates the importance of traditional marriage and undermines the social conservative consensus in favor of a cleaner amendment.
A fascinating debate until one considers the following: neither amendment is likely to pass. When Republicans held the Senate by a 10-seat margin, the federal marriage amendment was rejected by a vote of 49 to 48. Getting to two-thirds, or even a simple majority, in a Democratic Congress is virtually impossible.
This has been the case with past conservative constitutional amendments. The human life amendment, the number-one priority of pro-life activists during the Reagan era, never got more than 49 votes in the Senate -- 18 short of the required two-thirds majority. At the height of conservative concern about the deficit in the 1990s, the balanced budget amendment failed. Amendments restoring school prayer, banning flag burning, and ending forced busing have similarly gone nowhere.
At most, measures like the federal marriage amendment serve as litmus tests by which social conservatives judge the intensity of a Republican presidential candidate's commitment to their issues. If Thompson were as strongly opposed to gay marriage as James Dobson, the reasoning goes, he would support the same constitutional amendment.
Leaving aside whether the best recourse to every constitutionally dubious court decision is a revision of the Constitution, this tactic can just as easily give candidates a pass. Instead of actually doing something about marriage or abortion or any of the other social issues that engage the religious right's passions, politicians can endorse amendments they know will never clear a single chamber of Congress, let alone be ratified.
Social conservatives were energized by defeating the Equal Rights Amendment. But they have practically nothing to show for the constitutional amendments they have supported over the last three decades. That sad track record will continue if religious conservative groups decide it is more important to promote failed amendments than avoid a presidential contest between two social liberals.
If the religious right is going to be in the litmus tests business, there are more productive demands that could be made of the Republican candidates. The most obvious would pertain to judges, which is why everyone from Rudy Giuliani to Ron Paul is promising to appoint strict constructionists to the federal courts.
Or they could insist that the next president and Congress try to remove same-sex marriage and other social issues from the jurisdiction of the federal courts altogether, as authorized by Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution. All it would take is a simple majority vote in both chambers and the president's signature. Unlike the federal marriage amendment, a jurisdiction-stripping bill intended to bolster the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act actually passed the House last year with the support of the Bush administration.
But at a time when social conservative influence is widely thought to be on the wane, it is unwise to waste political capital on dueling amendments with little prospect for ratification in the near future. Religious conservatives already face tough choices in next year's presidential race. This fight merely makes those choices more difficult.
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