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Missouri no-compromise

A victory for traditional marriage may be both a bellwether and a firebell

When Missouri applied to join the union in 1818, she brought a long-simmering issue to a boil. Until then, the United States had an equal number of slave states and free states, so admitting Missouri would upset the balance and tilt the majority in Congress toward slave-holding interests. Naturally, Northern ­congressmen balked.

It took two years to work out the famous Compromise, whereby Maine (a free state) was admitted at the same time as Missouri and slavery was permanently banned in new states north of Missouri's southern border. That turned down the heat on the slavery issue, but thoughtful observers knew it was only temporary. Thomas Jefferson called the Missouri Compromise a "firebell in the night," the first alarm of a flame that would not be easily quenched.

Lately Missouri has been compared to another sort of bell. A "bellwether" was originally a gelded ram with some sort of clapper tied around his neck, whose telltale clanking told the shepherd which way the flock was headed. That Missouri bell rang loud and clear during the Aug. 3 primary election because of Amendment 2, located at the bottom of the ballot: ". . . to be legal in this state, a marriage shall exist only between a man and a woman."

The reason Missouri was jostled to the forefront of the traditional-marriage battle had to do with Democratic politics being too clever by half. Amendment 2 was originally slated for the November ballot along with Amendment 1, which would open up the Branson area to casino gambling. But the governor and attorney general, both Democrats, overrode the Republican secretary of state to place both amendments on the primary ballot scheduled for Aug. 3.

The governor's official explanation was that the gravity of the issues made a swift vote imperative. Clearly, though, party politics weighed just as heavily on his mind. According to at least one Missouri family advocate, those most likely to vote in non-general elections are people associated with liberal advocacy groups. Facing a tough reelection battle this year, Gov. Bob Holden was beholden to many of those groups. Anticipating the usual low turnout of primary voters-less than one-third of a general election turnout-he challenged the secretary of state in court, and won placement on the primary ballot.

Amendment 2 was expected to pass, but by a much lower margin than a general election would produce. With no better than, say, 60 percent of the vote against them, same-sex marriage advocates could then claim the support of almost half the voters of Missouri, a generally conservative state. Not bad, for a ground-shaking issue that wasn't even on the radar screen four years ago.

Except for the sudden interest in voter registrations. The secretary of state's election office reported sending out application cards by the case-many of them to church groups. The Missouri Baptist Convention, in particular, worked tirelessly to get the word out.

The result: Close to 1,500,000 voters punched cards for or against Amendment 2-almost double the 800,000 that normally show up for a primary. They passed the measure with 70.9 percent support-and while they were at it, voted down casino ­gambling by a comfortable margin. The governor lost his primary bid as well, making him the lamest of ducks.

Is it true that "as Missouri goes, so goes the nation"? Is that clanking sound the ram's bell, leading the flock away from the perils of wild social experimentation? Maybe. Support for traditional marriage seems to run close to the nerve center of the heartland; many first-time voters were propelled to the polls by that issue alone. And they weren't all Republicans; in fact, more Democrats turned out, though it's hard to say how many more (some Republicans went undercover to vote for Gov. Holden, who was seen as easier to knock off in November).

It's also encouraging that morality can trump money. Supporters of Amendment 2 had virtually no budget. ­Gambling opponents were outspent almost 10 to 1. When the issues are clear, the bucks don't necessarily kick.

But ringing support for Amendment 2 is also a firebell, reminding us that this battle has only begun. "This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes," but we can't afford to be smug or self-righteous in victory. Our call to battle is a call to pray for our enemies, to turn away wrath with soft answers, to give reasons not only for traditional marriage but also for the hope that's within us. Soldiers of the cross fight more on their knees than on their feet.