ST. CHARLES, Mo. - Vicki Gordy, a young grandmother and self-described "rascal" who wears purple eye shadow, a gold ankle bracelet and a necklace spelling out her name in diamonds, sat in front of her computer last spring and started crafting a letter to her local newspaper.
She admits that she wrote a "hateful letter." But as she told the women in her Wednesday Bible study group, if they didn't open their mouths and take a stand against gay marriage, they deserved what they got. Anyway, her husband, Mike, a retired human resources manager, toned down the letter, so a "softened version," she says, appeared in the paper:
This country was founded on Christian values, which have been constantly under attack from the gay and lesbian community for the past 10 years. This small minority group (1 to 10 percent of the total population) is well organized, active, vocal and intent on changing our social values in order to validate their lifestyle.
Vicki Gordy says she doesn't know anyone who is gay, but she does know one thing, "I know that it's wrong."
Around the same time, in the nearby town of O'Fallon, another grandmother sat down at her computer and wrote a letter to the editor, something Shirley Bryan did with the frequency of an opinionated, gray-haired 70-year-old with time on her hands and much on her mind.
One of her grandsons was studying the civil rights movement in school and had asked her what she remembered from those days. It got her thinking about what was going on today - in the country, in her state and even on the seven-member St. Charles County Council that had just voted unanimously to ban gay marriage in the county. So she wrote:
In this 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, many of us are appalled at the irrational fears of people at the time. How could we have been so ready to deny equal rights to others? ... Fifty years from now, how will history judge the way you act today?
Shirley and her husband, Roy, 71, are a year shy of their 50th anniversary, "so I'm not someone looking for an alternative lifestyle," the Missouri native says. But she doesn't believe any group of people should be denied a right if there is a benefit attached to that right.
Unlike Vicki, Shirley does know someone who is gay - a family member who has lived a "lonely, miserable life," she says, "because of his being told by so many that he's this terrible person."
It convinced her that being gay is not a choice people make. And it made her wonder, "What could we be so afraid of?"
Two letters. Two families. Two points of view. In 2004, the volatile, morally loaded issue of gay marriage has rippled out from the White House to the states, even out to county councils like the one in this conservative, fast-growing suburb of St. Louis, assuming the marquee spot usually occupied by abortion in the culture wars that heat up in election years.
In August, a month after the Senate voted against an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning gay marriage that President Bush had proposed, Missouri became the first state to put the question of banning gay marriage on the ballot. By a wide margin, Missourians like Vicki Gordy voted to amend their state constitution to limit marriage to one man and one woman. In at least 10 other states, the question will be on the November ballot.
As the debate has stirred passions and activism, it has also cast a spotlight on one of the key divisions in the American electorate today, one that has emerged in recent years as a key predictor of how people vote: one's relationship to religion and church.
While Bush is relying on churchgoing, tradition-minded conservatives like the Gordys to form the crux of his support, Sen. John Kerry can count on the more secular, nonobservant, "live and let live" Democrats like the Bryans on the other side of the cultural divide.
The Gordys, born-again Christians who do not drink, curse or watch R-rated movies, have noticed that there is more talk of political issues at their church than ever before. Gay marriage and abortion have come up in the Rev. Ben Merold's sermons at Harvester Christian Church, the nondenominational evangelical church they've attended for eight years. And some of the church's weekly newsletters have included an appeal to support the state and federal marriage amendments, with phone numbers of members of Congress supplied.
"It must be pretty big because this is the first time something like this has been in the bulletin," Vicki says.
Indeed, Christian evangelicals have become such a growing force for the Republican Party that the Bush-Cheney campaign has asked churches to distribute issue guides to their congregations, hold voter registration drives and lend them their membership directories. Many ministers have stopped just short of endorsing Bush, knowing they can't do so and preserve their tax-exempt status, but have nonetheless talked politics from the pulpit.