Will Foley Harm Marriage Amendments?

In the coming November elections, eight states will be voting on amendments to their state constitutions to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman, protecting the institution from threats from without.

The nationwide movement to do so has thus far been remarkably successful. In every state (20 in all) wherein such an amendment was presented directly to the voters, it has passed with convincing to overwhelming majorities. The smallest majority assembled was in Oregon, where 57% of the voters approved the measure.

Recently, though, Rep. Mark Foley (R.-Fla.) accidentally blew away his closet door with a shotgun, stumbling haphazardly from his congressional safety net into the real world—perhaps impeding the causes of social conservatives.

Foley was never a supporter of marriage protection, but he was considered largely pro-family, garnering a high 84% rating from the Christian Coalition, and just a 30% rating from NARAL, a leading pro-abortion rights group.

Values voters have become powerful in recent years by helping to elect religious elements within the GOP. The presence of social conservatives in the Senate such as Rick Santorum (R.-Pa.) and Sam Brownback (R.-Kan.) is in large part due to the groundswell of evangelical voters that has persisted since the 1980s.

But the relationship does not end there; the reverse is also true.

The same constituency has sought out these leaders to gain influence. Without such friends in high places, the marriage protection lobby would lack one of its major marketing tools. For the marriage protection movement is not a mass of independent advocacy groups coincidentally pursuing the same goal. Rather, it is a national issue that attracts followers state by state.

The hubbub over Foley-gate has three possible consequences for social conservatives and the momentum of marriage protection.

Scenario No. 1: Galvanization

Mark Foley’s indiscretions could be a banner to which social conservatives will flock. “Here,” they might say, “is proof of the very breakdown in family values we have so long championed.” As marriage is the foundation of the family and its values, Foley’s troubles could provide them with valuable ammunition to push their agenda.

Scenario No. 2: Dejection

Because values voters and, thus, the marriage protection movement rely to some degree on officeholders’ political influence to push their issues, it also needs to trust those same politicians in order to feel efficacy. If that trust is broken—as it may well have been by House GOP leadership—the feeling of efficacy among the constituency will drop, voters will become dejected, and the issue will be less important in 2006 and 2007.

If values voters stay home from the polls, Republicans might be sent packing en masse.

Scenario No. 3: Nothing

There is a possibility that Mark Foley’s pedophilia and sexual orientation will no have no effect on the marriage protection movement or on values voters as a whole. Those that believe this, such as Leo Godzich of the National Association of Marriage Enhancement, claim that this is a state issue, and is not affected by national politics. “I don’t think what happens at a national level affects state movements,” says Godzich. “Most people in the marriage movement have lost faith [in Congress]. … I don’t think they’re looking to anyone in Congress for guidance or leadership.”

The Fallout

Lisa Barstow of Massachusetts-based Vote for Marriage is slightly less confident that the result will be negligible, but optimistic. “I don’t know how it will shake out [nationally],” concedes Barstow, then adding, “Our organization isn’t making a connection.”

But there is a connection. Ultimately, values voters will rely on politicians for chamber votes or as mouthpieces. The Mark Foley scandal—if leading to dejection and apathy among social conservatives—could end up removing both of those tools from the hands of the religious right.

All this is not to suggest that the actions of one representative will doom marriage amendments in states this fall. Rather, it could lead to Republican losses nationwide that would hinder, and perhaps halt, the momentum of marriage protection as a salient issue.