Same-sex marriage is new front in culture wars

Sun National Staff

First in a series

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.

It was the first letter to the editor the 54-year-old had ever written - for one thing, she doesn't subscribe to the paper. But, looking out the window at the children circling her court on bikes and then over to her bookshelves, home to nearly two dozen Bibles, she felt God was imploring her to write.

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.

John Kerry, too, has talked much about values in trying to reach churchgoing Americans. But surveys suggest that those voters most attracted to the Massachusetts Democrat are more secular Americans, like the Bryans, who resent the injection of religion into law and politics, and whose church attendance is spottier.

The two points of view dovetail so neatly with the political parties that it's little surprise to hear the Gordys say their politics have grown more conservative as their relationship with Jesus Christ has deepened.

Once a liberal Democrat who let a friend who'd had an abortion stay at her home, Vicki now participates in silent abortion protests and agrees with the archbishop of St. Louis, Raymond L. Burke, who would deny Communion to politicians, like Kerry, who support abortion rights. A friend who would choose to terminate a pregnancy would not be welcome to stay in the Gordy home today.

Never that engaged in politics, Vicki found her interest piqued during the Bill Clinton years, when she prayed daily for the Democrat's salvation because of his moral lapses. But even now, the church volunteer who worked in part-time clerical jobs when her children were young says the only elements of politics that engage her are social issues. Bush most impressed her when he said Jesus Christ was the political philosopher with whom he most identified.

The couple love that Bush is expressive about his faith. In sending him a $100 check this year, they made their first political contribution. "I think he's a good Christian man, based upon what I see," says Mike, 56, who retired from his management job at Xerox a year ago and since January has been working full time as facilities manager at the Gordys' nearly 3,000-member church.

He, too, had been a Democrat who "didn't much see what the big deal was" regarding abortion and other such ethical issues and, until age 28 when he was born again, had no interest in religion. "I wanted to let people do what they wanted to do."

But now he bases his positions and values solely on his reading of the Bible and "what God is teaching me."

"He teaches that abortion is wrong," Mike says. "He teaches that gay marriage is wrong. There are absolutes in life. Some things are wrong - clearly."

On the flip side, Shirley Bryan, a Southern Baptist turned Presbyterian, says she used to be an independent voter "until the Republicans turned me into a Democrat." More than anything, she says, she objects to the infusion of religion into politics and is turned off by what she calls "professional Christians" like Bush who frame their politics in religious terms.

"I think people who wear their religion on their sleeve have a purpose for doing so," she says. "You should be able to tell by the way you act, and you should never have to mention it."

Her husband was also an independent but hasn't voted for anyone but a Democrat in the past 20 years. Like his wife, whom he met on their first day of high school in rural Bourbon, Mo., Roy also deplores the intermingling of religion and politics. When a deacon stood before the congregation and pressed a political agenda at a Methodist church he attended several years ago, he walked out.

Although they consider themselves Christian and spiritual - and grew up in rural Missouri going to a Baptist Sunday school and Bible school - the Bryans no longer go to church. Partly, they say, they prefer to stay home and relax on weekend mornings. They take care of their son, Skip, 37, who was paralyzed in a car accident at age 19, and just getting him up and dressed takes about an hour.

But more than that, they say, they have chafed at what they see as the increasingly extreme, judgmental and negative nature of organized religion. Shirley says: "This is wrong. That is wrong. You can't be gay. Abortion is wrong in all cases. You can't have stem cell research - better to take something and flush it down the toilet than do something with it that might help somebody like Skip. The more I hear of it, the less religious I am."

She still loves to decorate the house for Christmas. She believes in a supreme being. She believes we are all put here for a reason. Faced with breast cancer and then uterine cancer, she appealed to God "in a deep heartfelt prayer" to keep her alive as long as her son needed her. She is saddened, in fact, that she no longer feels comfortable in church.

But she says, "I think religion has changed more than I have changed."

This is where I get happy," Vicki Gordy says, beaming almost to the point of tears. It is a bright Sunday morning, and the mother of two, grandmother of six is in her element. Part of the church's welcoming ministry along with her husband, Vicki races around the lobby of the massive tentlike worship center at Harvester, greeting church members by name, hugging friends, and passing out Christian literature. Everyone tells her she was great on local TV, which featured her in a segment on a new wrinkle-reduction treatment she had last spring.

Every Sunday, the Gordys spend more than four hours at church, belting out hymns during the 8:30 service, assisting with baptisms if anyone decides that morning to become born-again, attending a class upstairs on proselytizing (called "Understanding Alternative Religions") and bathing in a Christian feeling that Vicki describes as "a high" that lasts all week.

Her life wasn't always so spiritual or so stable. Vicki was born and raised in Oklahoma, and married Mike when she was 16 - a high school junior ready to leave a home where the four children had three different fathers, two of whom hung out together at their house. "How dysfunctional do you want to get?" she asks.

She didn't go to church as a child or even as a young adult, and neither she nor Mike can point to any defining moment when they decided to become Christians. It was more of an evolution, they say, coaxed along by friends like Mike's co-worker at Xerox who paid for the Gordys to attend a weeklong seminar by evangelist Bill Gothard. "It was truly eye-opening," Mike says, "learning about what God's plan is for you."

But even now, steeped in faith, their family life is not without challenges. The youngest of their two grown sons, "our wild child," Vicki calls him, is unmarried with two girls and a boy from two previous relationships. Neither the Gordys nor their son is permitted to see the two girls, but the grandparents buy and keep savings bonds for them. "When they're 18, I'll get to see them," Vicki says. "I'm not so dumb."

And the grandchildren are in her prayers.

First thing every morning, Vicki settles into her rocking chair, and in a bedroom awash in purple - she is so enamored of purple that she has purple dishes, a purple refrigerator to match purple countertops, purple hangers, purple eye glasses, even a well-thumbed purple Bible with purple print - she prays for those who need healing or salvation (she keeps lists on purple index cards).

She prays for the people across the street who don't go to church, for family members who have not found Jesus, for doctors who perform abortions. Then she prays for the president and vice president, Cabinet members, Supreme Court justices. "I concentrate on the Supreme Court justices," she says, hoping the high court will one day overturn Roe v. Wade.

Checking a prayer guide she picked up at church, she prays for a particular issue depending upon the day of the week. Mondays, abstinence and adoption (she is for it). Thursdays, embryonic stem cell research (against it).

Church-related activities consume much of her time. She takes meals and provides rides to those who need them. She goes on "cookie calling" missions, paying house calls to first-time visitors to her church. (The church members used to come bearing cookies, hence the name, but because people seemed wary of homemade cookies from strangers, they now give an umbrella emblazoned with the church's name.)

And the Gordys also recruit friends and neighbors to their church by inviting "secular friends" to their home for homemade ice cream. "It's a great opening door," Vicki says.

The Gordys have brought five of their seven neighbors on Honey Locust Court to Harvester.

Religion has become so much a part of their life that there is little room for anything else - or, in a way, anyone else. Mike's brother and his family, who live in the central part of the state, don't come to visit anymore.

"He told me, 'You all are too religious. It may be your cup of tea, but it's not ours,' " Mike says.

"We couldn't think of anything we did," Vicki says.

But, as they know, they don't really have to do anything to convey the depth of their commitment. Every nook and cranny in their home, every tabletop, display cabinet and lavender wall contains religious emblems - including the Jesus figurine on the fireplace mantel, the "Footprints of God" plaque in the guest bathroom and the large wooden Christian fish that says "GORDY" over the French doors out front.

"We don't get a lot of Jehovah's Witnesses coming to our door," Vicki jokes.

Their checks, their calling cards, their return-address labels all have Christian sayings. Their cars, too, are outfitted with fish symbols and a cross on the back of the visor. "I have to be reminded to be nice to the other person," Vicki says. "I want to shake my fist. This helps me from doing a lot of things."

Aside from associating mostly with other Christians - "We're more comfortable doing things with people who believe similarly," Mike says - they read mostly religious material. They believe the mainstream press is too liberal, so they don't read any daily newspapers. Instead, they watch Fox News and read the journal of the American Family Association, a conservative Christian organization that publishes articles like "Homosexual Agenda Warping the Word."

It is from the AFA journal that the Gordys say they get most of their information about politics and culture. As they see it, the gay agenda aims to "desensitize people toward that lifestyle over time through TV and movies to where it's considered to be normal," Mike says, noting that the Gordys boycott any show with a gay character or sexual themes.

They would never go to a Disney theme park because of the company's policy of hiring gay men and lesbians, and extending health benefits to same-sex partners.

"It makes it tough," Vicki says of the rules she and her husband have chosen to live by. "I'd like to go to Disneyland."

But she says friends and neighbors have come back from such trips saying they'd seen gay couples holding hands and smooching there. "They're going to be really sorry come Judgment Day, and they don't realize that," Vicki says.

Mike views gay marriage as a step toward the disintegration of the family unit and societal disorder. "If it's OK for same-sex individuals to get married because they have a special relationship, why would it not be OK for a brother and sister to get married because they have a special relationship? Or a man and four women? Or an adult and a child?"

Mike and Vicki believe people are not born gay but choose to be so. "Somebody may be predisposed to that lifestyle," Mike says, "but they don't have to act on it."

Vicki says she knew of a child "headed in that direction." "Somebody recognized that he wasn't acting like a normal little boy," she says. "He was counseled, and today he's totally heterosexual. I believe they make a choice. I believe we all make a choice."

Mike knows he risks being called bigoted or intolerant for espousing such views, but he makes no apologies and believes God calls upon him and other Christians to speak out.

"The bottom line is, I believe the Bible is the inspired word of God," he says. "My beliefs and my values are based on what the Bible teaches. I can't pick and choose to believe one thing and not something else."

The Gordys can cite multiple examples - from Romans, First Corinthians, Leviticus - where they believe the Bible condemns homosexuality as "shameless," "detestable" and a sin carrying "the due penalty."

"The Bible says it," Mike says. "I believe it."

Shirley Bryan spends one Sunday in July another way. Straightening up her home with its velour rocker-recliners and country-style decor, she is preparing to have 14 neighbors in the community of mostly retirees over to her house for a private screening of Outfoxed, a documentary about Fox News promoted by a Democratic group,

Although at 70 the mother of three has never missed voting in an election - and has joked to her 18-year-old grandson that if he doesn't vote, she'll remove him from her will - "I never did anything in politics before this year," she says.

She has volunteered at the local Kerry office and canvasses door to door on weekends. In midsummer, she manned a Democratic Party booth at the St. Peters Olde Tyme Picnic, where the Gordys sang with their church choir.

When the St. Charles County Council held its first hearing on the proposed ordinance banning gay marriage, Shirley alone showed up and told the Republican panel, "Your job isn't to guard our morals. It's to take care of the sewers and traffic."

Laughing at the fact that she voted against Truman because he cussed, Shirley says she and Roy have grown increasingly liberal and partisan as the Republicans, in their view, have become more "extreme," appealing to their base of religious conservatives with issues like gay marriage.

"It's very divisive," Shirley says. "Bush said, 'I'm a uniter, not a divider,' and yet what has he come up with? Same-sex marriage. What could that do but divide people?"

Roy Bryan, a fit 71-year-old with thin white hair and the straight bearing of the Army man he once was, says he thinks gay men and lesbians "should be left alone" to live their lives as they want to, even if it includes marriage. "Let them enjoy their life," says Roy, who retired after 33 years with McDonnell Aircraft. "We've been fighting discrimination for how many years, and now we have to single out a few more people to discriminate against?"

Like his wife, Roy believes abortion should be a decision between a woman and her doctor, hates the way the Republicans hounded Clinton over an inconsequential sex scandal and feels the war in Iraq was ill-conceived.

"I hear people say they'll vote for Bush because he's a Christian," Roy says. "How can anyone really believe they're a Christian and send troops over there with no plan to get them out."

While Vicki Gordy prays, Shirley, too, has a morning ritual, one she calls "the most important thing" she does each day. She reads newspapers. Then newsmagazines. Then she goes online and calls up the Web site for the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank that puts out a daily report with articles like "Bush League Economy."

When Shirley checks her e-mail, she often finds a missive from her sister Beverly, a conservative Republican who lives out in the country in Caledonia, Mo., and "has spent her whole life trying to educate and straighten me out, and save me from damnation," Shirley says only partly in jest.

Today, Beverly has forwarded to her younger sister a blistering attack on Teresa Heinz Kerry, an article with no author or attribution that she received from her pastor's wife:

"Didn't send this to make you mad ... thought it had some good info in it. Bev."

Usually, Shirley ignores Beverly's offerings.

Shirley says her sister's religious zeal has turned her away from church - especially Beverly's condemnation and counseling of their family member who is gay.

"He is a very sad, withdrawn person," Shirley says of the man, who is private about his sexual orientation. "Not because of what he is, but because of what society is telling him he is. It has convinced me beyond any doubt that this is not a chosen lifestyle. He would not have chosen this. I don't care what the Bible says. I will never believe anything different because my own common sense tells me this."

She says she bristles when those like her sister use a biblical justification for their politics, such as their disapproval of gay unions. Traveling abroad last summer - where Shirley put "ABB" (Anyone But Bush) bumper stickers on her luggage hoping for better treatment from the Europeans - she thought about the role of religion in government when she saw Islamic women at Heathrow Airport with only their eyes peeking out from their veils. "Would you want your life dictated to by people who believe women should be wearing that?" she asks.

Unlike the Gordys, the Bryans were regular churchgoers as children and even as parents.

Shirley is the daughter of a farmer and a fabric store owner. She dropped out of school at 16 to get married, divorced five years later and then married Roy, just back from Japan, where he'd been stationed during the Korean War.

She eventually got her high school equivalency diploma, took some college classes and started working at a series of bookkeeping and payroll jobs, at times finding discrimination against women, including herself, that turned her into a proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment, a champion of the underdog and, she supposes, a liberal.

She and Roy went with their three children to church every Sunday - that is, until one day in 1986 when their youngest son, Skip, was severely injured in a car accident. A quadriplegic who lives with the Bryans, Skip, now 37, has been pursuing a master's degree at nearby Lindenwood University and has worked for the past 15 years for an insurance company. Smart, funny and as opinionated as his mother, Skip drives a specially outfitted minivan (with a bumper sticker that says "W starts with Duh"), but the Bryans, including their daughter Becky, who lives next door, still have to dress him and take care of his most basic bodily functions.

"You don't know how hard it's going to be," Shirley says. "Thank God you don't."

Recently, the blunt-spoken mother made a bumper sticker that she put on the back of Skip's wheelchair. It says, "Not Affected By Stem Cell Research? I Am."

Few people have commented.

Although the Bryans have drifted away from organized religion, they say they live by the golden rule, trying not to judge people and doing what they can for other people. Roy does home repair work and painting for elderly neighbors. Shirley helps Skip's ex-wife take care of her 10- and 16-year-old children, even though a brief marriage to her son two years ago didn't work out.

She says she has turned to God at times: When she looked into her son's eyes as he lay still on a hospital bed and asked her, "Mom, am I going to die?" and during her own battles with cancer and Roy's heart attack nine years ago.

But mostly, Shirley says, she just copes.

"It's my nature to handle things," she says. "I don't say, 'God, what should do?' I just do. I don't think that's irreligious."

On a larger scale, too, she tries to do what she can. And here, she has something in common - perhaps the only thing in common - with Vicki Gordy.

"You just speak up," Shirley says, before tapping out another letter to the editor, this one assailing all the political talk of values. "Maybe that's all you can do."

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