"Divorce rates among conservative Christians were much higher than for other faith groups," [George] Barna says flatly...
The five states with the highest rates of divorce -- 50 percent more divorce than the national average -- all went for Bush in 2000...
Twenty-seven percent of adults are divorced across the legendarily devout South, pollster Barna found. As for the liberal Northeast? That's the region with the lowest divorce rate, 19 percent."
-- Ellis Henican, New York Newsday, January 16, 2004
a deluge of bad news Bush stories: Treasury Secretary
Paul O'Neill's revelations on the genesis of the war in Iraq --
initiated within weeks of President Bush taking office; OíNeillís criticism
of the president's less-than-commanding performance during cabinet meetings;
a report by the Army War College's Jeffrey Record, calling the war on
terrorism unfocused and the war on Iraq "a strategic error"; reports and
news stories confirming no weapons of mass destruction stockpiles in Iraq.
Inundated by stories such as these, Team Bush came up with its own unlikely union of initiatives -- one that shoots for the Moon and Mars, and one that aims to protect and encourage marriages here on Earth.
A week before the president's State of the Union Address, Team Bush trucked out "the vision thing." The Moon/Mars project was geared towards giving the president a gravitas makeover and inextricably link him to the quest to explore space initiated by President John F. Kennedy more than two decades ago.
The president's other initiative, the so-called common sense "Healthy Marriages" initiative, is aimed at more earthly pursuits, cementing the administration's relationship with its hard-core, right-wing constituency.
Early polls indicated that the idea of sending expeditionary forces to the Moon and Mars, spending more than $120 billion to do so, hasn't reignited the American people's exploratory itch. One objective of the president's initiative that is not spelled out has been abundantly clear to space watchers for more than a decade -- assuring U.S. military domination of space.
The president's recycled "healthy marriages" initiative, on the other hand, is a five-year program which has what Team Bush likes to call "common sense" goals. It also promises to be far less costly to taxpayers, although $1.5 billion is not chopped liver. (In fact, that figure is roughly equivalent to the cost of the Hubble Telescope, which is about to be abandoned by the administration.)
Cooked up by the president's conservative operatives in cooperation with his right-wing constituency, the initiative's stated aim is to help couples develop skills to sustain healthy marriages right here on terra firma.
The programís main target is low-income communities. An administration official pointed out that the president, who likely will visit programs working to raise marriage rates in inner-city communities, "loves to do that sort of thing in the inner city with black churches, and he is very good at it." (The president spread some love in the inner city -- for about 15 minutes -- at the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial the other day in Atlanta.)
Dr. Wade F. Horn, the assistant secretary for the Administration of Children, Youth and Families (ACF) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service, said that while the administration didn't want to appear heavy-handed and that the program was strictly voluntary, "We want to help couples, especially low-income couples, manage conflict in healthy ways. We know how to teach problem-solving, negotiation and listening skills."
Dr. Hornís purview, as stated in his biography posted at the HHS Web site, is oversight of a number of programs including Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, foster care, adoption assistance, family preservation and support, Head Start, child care, child support enforcement, runaway and homeless youth, low income home energy assistance, community services, refugee resettlement, mental retardation and developmental disabilities, and community services.
According to a People for the American Way Foundation report, Dr. Horn believes that "when the government provides benefits via programs such as Head Start, public housing or job training, preference should be given to 'two-parent married households.'"
Dr. Horn is a longtime marriage-promotion activist who joined the administration in July 2001. He co-founded the National Fatherhood Initiative in 1994 and served as its president. He has also served on the Board of Directors of the Independent Women's Forum, a small conservative anti-feminist organization that the PFAWF report described as opposing affirmative action, and "gender equity programs like Title IX and the Violence Against Women Act."
"Healthy marriages" isn't a new initiative. According to the New York Times, the House of Representatives supported a plan to spend $300 million to promote marriage as part of a bill to reauthorize the 1996 welfare law, "but the bill is bogged down in the Senate." As it has done with other faith-based projects, the administration has sidestepped Congress and has "retained consultants to help state and local government agencies, community organizations and religious groups develop marriage-promotion proposals," the Times reported.
Government money will be used for "advertising campaigns to publicize the value of marriage, instruction in marriage skills and mentoring programs that use married couples as role models," the Times reported. But these programs will be available only to heterosexual couples.
Only heterosexuals need apply
The administration launched this initiative as a response to conservative outrage over the recent ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts that gay couples had a constitutional right to marry one another. Horn pointed out that while gay couples weren't eligible for assistance under this initiative, if they "had a child and they were poor, they might be eligible for food stamps or cash assistance."
Opponents of the anti-same-sex marriage constitutional amendment charged the president with clearly playing politics. Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, accused the administration of targeting the marriage initiative to inner-city blacks so they can "pit two of the Democratic Party's most solid blocs of support -- the African-American and gay communities -- against each other and wedge off the votes they need to stay in power."
Evan Wolfson of Freedom to Marry, a marriage equality advocacy group, pointed out that it was "ironic that this government wants to spend tax dollars to 'promote marriage,' while spending other tax dollars to block same-sex couples who want to marry.
"We're all for healthy marriages," Wolfson declared. "Healthy marriages begin with choice, personal commitment, and two people working together through life's ups and downs -- not government interference. Gay men and lesbians have the same mix of reasons for wanting the freedom to marry as non-gay people -- emotional and economic, practical and personal, social and spiritual," Wolfson said. "Like other families, same-sex couples need the protections marriage offers legally and economically... like other human beings, we seek the day-to-day structure, support and security that marriage provides."
Whether marriage is the key to getting people out of poverty is certainly open to question. And with so little social program money available, is this the best way for $1.5 billion to be spent? In a July 1999 article, Dr. Horn argued that the presence of fathers in the home is essential to the well being of families, and that marriage solidifies those relationships. Dr. Horn was responding to an article by Louise B. Silverstein and Carl F. Auerbach entitled "Deconstructing the Essential Father," which was published in the June 1999 issue of American Psychologist.
According to their research involving divorced, never-married, and remarried fathers, Silverstein and Auerbach found that "a wide variety of family structures can support positive child outcomes. We have concluded that children need at least one responsible, caretaking adult who has a positive emotional connection to them and with whom they have a consistent relationship... However, we do not believe that the data support the conclusion that fathers are essential to child well-being and that heterosexual marriage is the social context in which responsible fathering is most likely to occur."
Red meat for the right
The multi-purpose subtext of the "Healthy Marriages" initiative is far more interesting as it appears to be designed with several political goals in mind:
* Solidify the president's relationships with the ground troops on the religious right -- also known as the armies of compassion -- that Team Bush, headed up by Karl Rove, hopes will come out in droves for the president come Election Day.
* Bring the term "compassionate conservatism" out of moth balls and into the election year spotlight.
* Take the heat off the president for stalling on his endorsement of a constitutional amendment currently kicking around in the House of Representatives that would put the kibosh on same-sex marriage.
* Dole out money to a number of faith-based organizations to implement the initiative, providing a booster shot for the president's faith-based initiative. Introduced nearly three years ago, Bush's faith-based initiative, which was intended to be the centerpiece of his domestic "compassionate conservative" agenda, has been stalled in Congress ever since. Despite failing to gain the stamp of approval from Congress, however, Bush's faith-based project is moving along at a fast-paced clip inside several government agencies.
White House communications director Don Bartlett, a longtime friend and advisor to the president, was one of the first administration officials to place "healthy marriages" within the context of the president's "compassionate conservatism." Bartlett told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that the initiative was an example of the presidentís thirty-year commitment to traditional family values and "compassionate conservatism."
Religious right groups hopped on board the president's marriage train, but some with only one foot, as they questioned why the president was only going partway.
Tony Perkins, the recently installed head of the Family Research Council (FRC) -- which began as a division of Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family and has become one of the most powerful conservative social-issue lobbying groups in Washington -- was deliberate in his praise of the president. In an FRC press release, Perkins, who claims to be "the author of the nation's first covenant marriage law -- which seeks to help couples avoid divorce and have successful marriages," pointed out that "the President's support of a federal marriage amendment would go a long way in making sure that marriage is not only promoted, but also protected.Ē
In a January 13 radio commentary, Perkins said that President Bush should seize the "golden opportunity" presented by his State of the Union speech and "declare his active support for a constitutional amendment defining marriage in the United States as the union of one man and one woman."
The Rev. Lou Sheldon, head of the Traditional Values Coalition, a network of thousands of churches across the nation, indicated that his organization would initiate an e-mail campaign urging constituents to continue pushing for the constitutional amendment.
Sandy Rios, president of Concerned Women for America, which bills itself as the "nation's largest public policy women's organization," told her radio listeners that the president's initiative was a good first step, "but if he does not address the legal attacks by homosexual activists, he has squandered his God-given opportunities and responsibility to stand firm and lead us boldly through these dangerous, immoral times."
During his State of the Union address, Bush, while willing to reiterate his belief that marriage should be between one man and one woman, wasn't quite ready to support the right's campaign for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Push could come to shove when Perkins, Sheldon and Rios continue pressing this issue during the upcoming campaign.
* Related Article: The Patriarch Act: Who Wants to Marry a Welfare Queen? by Leilla Matsui
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.
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