Carolyn Hickerson, a self-identified evangelical Christian, has distributed nearly 10,000 yard signs in support of traditional marriage in the suburbs outside Nashville. On November 7, Tennessee voters will considerate a ballot initiative that would define marriage as between a man and a woman.

"Based on the Scriptures, they should have an opinion on the family and on the sanctity of marriage and how important family is to our nation," she said.

Across the country, conservative religious activists continue to mobilize around the issue of marriage. The October25 decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court that said gay couples are entitled to the full rights and benefits of married couples has provided new momentum for efforts by religious conservatives to get out the vote.

"If you talk to a lot of leaders in the movement, they will tell you quite candidly that for their fundraising purposes … that's the number one issue," said Mark Rozell, professor of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "That's the big threat that activists at the grass roots feel."

The New Jersey ruling could provide an electoral boost for Republican candidates, especially because in recent weeks many religious conservatives had been voicing strong frustration with their usual allies in the GOP.

"The Republicans need a solid, enthusiastic turnout among those voters in order to be successful," Rozell told the PBS program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Religious conservatives have been a mainstay for the Republican coalition. In 2004, 78 percent of all evangelicals voted for President Bush — 40 percent of his total vote. But there have been several new cracks in the coalition.

According to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, less than half of all evangelicals now think the GOP is friendly toward religion — a 14 percent drop from just a year ago.

James Dobson, founder of the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Focus on the Family, has become perhaps the most influential national leader for conservative evangelical political activism. Lately, he's been speaking openly about his disillusionment with the GOP.

"I have been extremely disappointed with what the Republicans have done with the power that they were given," Dobson told a recent rally of religious conservatives in Washington. "There was so much said about values voters, that the values voters made the difference. If that's true, why did not the Republicans, when they had the power in both the House and the Senate, pay attention to what the values voters cared about?"

"I think it hits a boiling point," said Rozell. "They feel they've been faithful to the Republican Party. They've gone out there and worked real hard for Republican Party candidates. And time and time again, they feel that their agenda has been largely put on the back burner at the federal level."

Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church, an evangelical megachurch in Lanham, Md., says conservatives should have told the Republican Party, "We get something for our participation."

Jackson has helped lead the fight against gay marriage and tried to mobilize socially conservative African-American voters.

"As an African-American, I believe over the years blacks have been taken for granted by the Democratic Party," he said. "And I've said this to evangelical leaders — we've allowed ourselves to be considered the new blacks on the political plantation. Strong words, but a real feeling I have."

Tony Perkins, president of the Washington-based Family Research Council, said the scandal surrounding former Republican Rep. Mark Foley and his sexually charged e-mails to underage congressional pages has also frayed relations between the GOP and religious conservatives.

"I think the whole episode with Foley and the Party has some sitting back saying, 'You know, all this talk about big tent strategy — this looks more like a three-ring circus.' I'm just not sure this is a party I want to be a part of," he said.

Still, both Dobson and Perkins are seeking to get out the Christian conservative vote. They have been holding a series of rallies around the country and sounding an urgent alarm on the issue of gay marriage.

"It will have major implications for the future of this country," Dobson told a rally in Nashville. "Because the family, and marriage being the centerpiece of it, is the ground floor, and that's the foundation. Everything sits on the foundation, and if you undermine it or weaken it, you threaten the whole superstructure."

Eight states, including Tennessee, have pro-traditional marriage amendments on the ballot this year — an issue that helped Republicans in 2004.

In Tennessee, state Sen. David Fowler has been spearheading the movement to get the marriage amendment passed. And he's been enlisting support from churches.

"They are a great vehicle for reaching a large number of people in a quick period of time, relatively inexpensively," he said.

Perkins says he believes religious conservatives will turn out in big numbers on Nov. 7.

Article continues below

"It's kind of like a reserve military," he said. "They come out when needed and when they're called upon, and so I think when the threat is there, they will be there to defend the institution of marriage."

But he warns Republicans not to assume religious conservative voters have nowhere to go.

"They're not wed to a party," he said. "They're wed to a core set of issues and values, and that's where they will go. And when a party or a political figure leaves those issues, those voters will leave that person or that party."

Related Elsewhere:

More on same-sex marriage is available from our full coverage area.