Marriage Counselor

Matt Daniels believes he's found a solution to the political problem of gay marriage. So why do his fellow conservatives want to divorce him?

Most Americans oppose gay marriage but support civil rights and legal equality for gays, whereas the far right opposes even the latter. On many such issues President Bush has been able to placate conservatives without alienating mainstream voters, by wrapping conservative policies in moderate language—practicing, to use a term he made famous, "compassionate conservatism." Karl Rove, Bush's chief strategist, keeps a key lesson of the 1992 presidential campaign firmly in mind: when Republicans try to fuel the culture war, as Pat Buchanan did at that year's Republican convention, they generally provoke a backlash. Now Bush faces the challenge of applying this lesson yet again.

Until November, when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of legalizing gay marriage, Bush and his advisers had little reason to focus on the issue—but Matt Daniels, the head of a small (seven-person) public-policy group called the Alliance for Marriage, has been immersed in it for years. Daniels has already devised a compassionate-conservative approach to gay marriage—one that in many respects seems tailored to Bush's re-election campaign. But it is not at all clear that Bush could afford to adopt it even if he wanted to.

Although Daniels lacks extensive experience in Washington, he has achieved surprising influence in the gay-marriage debate, because he came to it so early. During the first years of this Bush Administration, while most social conservatives worried about stem-cell research and abortion, Daniels engineered the drafting of the Federal Marriage Amendment, a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage nationwide. By the end of last year he had persuaded more than a hundred representatives to co-sponsor the bill.

What makes Daniels's strategy such a good fit for compassionate conservatism is his pragmatism. According to Daniels, marriage between men and women is a "transcendent, immemorial institution." But whereas most conservatives condemn homosexuality as a biblical sin, Daniels understands that the public's tolerance needs to be taken into account. Accordingly, Daniels says, he crafted the FMA to ban gay marriage while leaving intact California's domestic-partnership rights and Vermont's civil-union law (some liberals argue that its language would invalidate civil unions). And although Daniels has a contentious style and a booming voice, which becomes even louder when he inveighs against gay marriage, he is careful not to condemn gays themselves.

Signing on to Daniels's approach would seem to allow Bush once again to throw a bone to his conservative base while positioning himself as a moderate. But in this instance the evangelical right may not take the bone. Although it has gone along with Bush's breaches of conservative ideology in many cases (his decisions to levy steel tariffs, to drop school vouchers, to add a new federal entitlement in the form of the Medicare drug benefit), signs are that gay marriage will be different. According to Paul Weyrich, the head of the Free Congress Foundation, an influential conservative lobbying group, "I have yet to see the movement as energized as it is over defense of marriage." Daniels's own experience shows how unwilling the far right is to compromise on this issue. Instead of being hailed for his success in promoting the Federal Marriage Amendment (which would, after all, achieve one of the far right's main objectives), he has been denounced as a sellout and an enemy of the movement. "He is a disaster," one prominent social conservative told me bluntly. If Daniels is a bellwether, gay marriage seems likely to emerge as the issue that defines the political limits of compassionate conservatism. And it could test whether social conservatives can win popular support for their positions by framing issues in secular, rather than religious, terms.

Daniels often waxes lyrical about the virtues of traditional marriage—marriages of men and women, who become fathers and mothers—but he is describing a model that he himself experienced only briefly. He was born in 1963, the only child of Irish parents living in Spanish Harlem. His father, Guy, was a published poet and had translated the works of the Russian authors Vladimir Mayakovsky and Andrei Sakharov. He was also a fickle husband, bolting from one marriage to the next. Guy left the family when Matt was three. Matt's mother worked as a secretary and provided a stable home. But during the 1970s the neighborhood became a morass of crime and drugs. "I was mugged probably twenty times by the time I got to college," Daniels told me when we spoke recently. One evening in 1971, his mother was attacked by four men, who left her with a broken back. Unable to work, she grew dependent on welfare, and on alcohol. The family's prospects for a better life dwindled.

Intent on escape by his own means, Daniels won a scholarship to Dartmouth. But after graduation he found himself back in his old environment: his mother was dying of congestive heart failure, and he returned home to care for her. During this time he began searching for a spiritual mooring. He worked in a homeless shelter and in three soup kitchens, all run by black churches. The ministers welcomed him into their congregations, and it gradually dawned on Daniels that he had been born again. "That became a foundation for the rest of my life," he says.

Daniels had found not only religion but also a professional calling: helping the urban poor. In 1993 he entered the University of Pennsylvania law school on a scholarship conditional on his commitment to a public-interest career. For most people the public-interest path leads to liberal organizations. But Daniels grew increasingly averse to the liberal values of his professors. (On the first day of a family-law class a feminist instructor declared, "I would challenge anyone to show how the absence of men from families has any adverse effect on children.") After graduating, in 1996, he became the director of the Massachusetts Family Institute, the Boston outpost of the evangelical broadcaster James Dobson's growing empire.

At the institute one issue consumed Daniels: the importance of fathers. He commissioned surveys whose results illustrated the prevalence and harms of single-mother families, and he worked for laws to make divorce harder to get. Above all, he dedicated himself to opposing gay marriage, which he sees as the biggest threat to the traditional family. Daniels says that his views on gays and gay marriage were greatly influenced by his association with black churches. Like their white counterparts, black evangelicals draw their views on homosexuality from a literalist interpretation of the Bible. But because of their political alliance with social liberals in the Democratic Party, they generally refrain from public pronouncements of these views. Daniels himself tries to make his argument strictly sociological. Before tinkering with the definition of marriage, he says, we would need good social science on the probable long-term effects—especially because, he believes, no-fault divorce and other legal changes have weakened marriage. "It's rather irresponsible on the part of the proponents," he told me. "If we're wrong, as we've been wrong before, we're going to pay the price for a long time."

In 1999 Daniels moved to Washington to found the Alliance for Marriage. The group enlisted conservative legal scholars to write the Federal Marriage Amendment. When Daniels presented the document, in 2001, it struck many conservatives as a waste of time. They thought they had already won the battle: in 1996 President Bill Clinton had signed the Defense of Marriage Act, forbidding federal recognition of same-sex unions; thirty-seven state legislatures had issued their own bans.

Daniels's prescience about the re-emergence of the gay-marriage issue stemmed from his years in Boston, where, in addition to running the institute, he had earned a doctorate in politics at Brandeis University. In his dissertation he castigated the courts for, he contended, usurping the legislatures as the most important authors of social policy. In the course of his research he pored over countless law reviews, in which, he noticed, liberal professors had painstakingly built a jurisprudential case for gay marriage. He believed it would be only a matter of time before courts gave gay marriage their imprimatur. When the Massachusetts court did so last November, conservatives suddenly realized that amending the Constitution was not a redundant exercise—it was essential to their cause.

Daniels's savvy was also evident in his launching of the FMA. He had made the case for his amendment to leading social conservatives, but he hadn't tried to enlist them as his main allies, because of their polarizing language and stance. ("The traditional social-conservative movement harkens back to an era of white Protestant cultural hegemony," he told me.) And because he knew that gay-rights activists would cast marriage as a civil right and evoke the African-American struggle, he had devised a strategy to pre-empt this line of argument: he chose African-Americans, including the Boston minister Ray Hammond and the civil-rights veteran Walter Fauntroy, to be his spokesmen.

But for all the obvious political virtues of the Daniels approach, it has one major flaw: conservative activists hate it. Many of them—including Daniels's comrades from his Massachusetts Family Institute days—have called him to express their ire. One told Daniels that his coalition resembled the bar scene in Star Wars. (Daniels replied, "When the right-wingers get together, that's the bar scene in Star Wars. Those are the alien forms.") Members of the Family Research Council and other groups on the religious right have chastised congressional sponsors of the FMA. Because of these groups' belief that homosexuality is a sin, they are unwilling to make any accommodations—and they are angry at Daniels for trying to do so. They are preparing for a showdown, which will take place in the coming months. The leaders of nearly every major conservative activist group—James Dobson, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, and the former drug czar William J. Bennett among them—have banded together to create an anti-gay-marriage front: the Arlington Group. They have written their own constitutional amendment, which would ban both gay marriage and civil unions. Given this group's political heft, congressional backers of the FMA may shift their support.

One well-documented characteristic of the Bush Administration is its scrupulous adherence to the lessons of the first Bush presidency. Although George H.W. Bush's approval ratings were as high as 90 percent after the Gulf War, he was seen as betraying conservative activists when he raised taxes, and this contributed to his loss in the 1992 election. Karl Rove has worked hard to avoid this mistake, carefully attending to a coalition of social and economic conservatives. Bush risks losing a crucial element of this base if he takes a relatively moderate stance on gay marriage. But if he caters to it too rigorously, he risks losing the mainstream support he has so assiduously courted.