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Mormon Involvement in Prop. 8 Viewed as a ’Fiasco’

The media are questioning the heavy involvement of the Mormon church in the precedent-setting passage of Proposition 8, the California constitutional amendment that, for the first time, revoked existing rights of gay and lesbian families via the popular vote.

Hendrik Hertzberg, in the current edition The New Yorker magazine, scrutinized the apparent contradictions inherent in a church that had begun as a faith embracing polygamy now pushing a definition of marriage as one man and one woman into civil law.

As posted on Nov. 24 at MSNBC Hertzberg’s essay begins with a tart jab at the history of the church.

“You might think that an organization that for most of the first of its not yet two centuries of existence was the world’s most notorious proponent of startlingly unconventional forms of wedded bliss would be a little reticent about issuing orders to the rest of humanity specifying exactly who should be legally entitled to marry whom,” Hertzberg writes.

“But no. The Mormon Church–as anyone can attest who has ever answered the doorbell to find a pair of polite, persistent, adolescent “elders” standing on the stoop, tracts in hand–does not count reticence among the cardinal virtues.

“Nor does its own history of matrimonial excess bring a blush to its cheek,” continues Hertzberg, pointing out that, “The original Latter-day Saint, Joseph Smith, acquired at least twenty-eight and perhaps sixty wives, some of them in their early teens, before he was lynched, in 1844, at age thirty-eight.

“Brigham Young, Smith’s immediate successor, was a bridegroom twenty times over, and his successors, along with much of the male Mormon élite, kept up the mass marrying until the nineteen-thirties–decades after the Church had officially disavowed polygamy, the price of Utah’s admission to the Union, in 1896.

“As Richard and Joan Ostling write in ’Mormon America: The Power and the Promise’ (2007), ’Smith and his successors in Utah managed American history’s only wide-scale experiment in multiple wives, boldly challenging the nation’s entrenched family structure and the morality of Western Judeo-Christian culture.’”

Hertzberg went on to cite another textual tidbit: “’Mormons Tipped Scale In Ban On Gay Marriage,’ the Times headlined the week after Election Day, reflecting the views of proponents and opponents alike.

“Six and a half million Californians voted for Proposition 8, and six million voted against it-a four-point margin, close enough for a single factor to make the difference.

“Almost all the early canvassers for the cause were Mormons, but the most important contributions were financial,” Hertzberg continues, noting, “The normal political pattern is for money to get raised in California and spent elsewhere. This time, Salt Lake City played the role of Hollywood, rural Utah was the new Silicon Valley, and California was cast as flyover country.

“Of the forty million dollars spent on behalf of Prop. 8, some twenty million came from members or organs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

The New Yorker is not alone in publishing querulous commentary concerning the church’s involvement in the most expensive civil rights ballot initiative campaign ever mounted.

Americablog in a Nov. 25 item, put the issue more succinctly, and more pointedly.

“When your biggest negatives are that people think you’re pushy, rich, secretive, weird, and hell-bent on imposing your seemingly-cultish way of life on them, the last thing you should do is use gobs of money to force your views on millions of others,” the Americablog item read.

“It’s not clear what the Mormons were thinking, but in the process, they may have made a few friends on the religious right–friends who still think the Mormons are a cult, mind you…–but they’ve just convinced millions of other Americans that they’re hateful heavy-handed bigots.”

Added the Americablog article, “In one fell swoop, the Mormons just convinced somewhere between 10 million and 30 million gay Americans, and their 40 to 120 million friends and families, that the Mormons are filthy rich bigots who want to come into your town, take over, and force you to live under their rules… or else they’ll destroy your families and ruin your lives.”

Americablog quoted extensively from a Nov. 22 article titled “Prop 8 Involvement A PR Fiasco for LDS Church” that appeared in the Salt Lake Times in which the newspaper, in the heart of Mormon country, asks similar questions about the church’s role in the Proposition 8 campaign and the backlash the church is now feeling.

The article notes that potential converts are now canceling meetings with Mormon missionaries, Mormons nationwide have lost friendships over the issue, and divinity students at Wesley Theological Seminar have challenged the instructor of the school’s inaugural course on the Mormon faith.

The article quoted Mormon church member and Washington, D.C. resident JaLynn Prince, who said, “We are not taking sides on the issue, but the way this was done has hurt our people and the church’s image.”

Added Prince, “It reminds me of the naive public relations strategy we had regarding the Equal Rights Amendment.”

The article speculated that the “Mormon moment,” in which mainstream America had an opportunity to hear more about the faith with the campaign of Republican nomination hopeful Mitt Romney, savior of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and former governor of Massachusetts, may have evaporated in the heat of the marriage equality debate.

The article noted that criticism of the Mormon church–which the newspaper called “mean-spirited”–was immediate following the passage of Proposition 8.

In part, that criticism arises from the ad campaign that the church’s members helped to fund with over $20 million in donations, a flood of money that was unleashed after the church leadership instructed its members to support the anti-gay measure.

Nor are criticisms the only problem the church now faces: along with overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations against Proposition 8 that have taken place in 300 cities nationwide, there have been incidents of picketing at Mormon temples.

The Mormon leadership take an optimistic view of the negativity aimed at the church. Scott Trotter, a spokesperson for the church, was quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune article as saying, “All in all, 2008 has been a particularly good year for the church.”

Explained Trotter, “The church dedicated four temples and announced eight more. Membership topped 13 million worldwide with over 52,000 missionaries in the field.

“While some of the protest activity we have seen has been deplorable, there are others who have taken the time to fully understand the church’s position on marriage and home to respect this principled stand.”

Proposition 8 campaign leader Gary Lawrence, a Mormon who authored a book titled How Americans View Mormonism: Seven Steps to Improve Our Image, was also quoted.

Said Lawrence, “These protests will help us.

“It puts a spotlight on us,” continued Lawrence, adding, “Which is worse–antagonism or apathy?”

Some GLBT blogs have carried stories revealing that Mormon plans to derail marriage equality did not start with the campaign to promote Proposition 8, but rather in 1997, when the question first surfaced in the state of Hawaii, sparking the long-running series of state constitutional amendments that have seen 30 states write anti-gay discrimination into their bedrock law.

The Tribune article also referenced the key memorandum from 1997, in which Loren C. Dunn, at that time a leader of the church, warned that “the church should be in a coalition and not out front by itself.”

Dunn’s advice seems to have been well worth taking; in the current instance, with the church’s prominence in the issue bringing such a backlash onto the faith, a less visible role might have resulted in less acrimony.

Still, given the sheer amount of money the Mormon faithful funneled into California, public scrutiny could not avoided.

Noted a Notre Dame political science professor, David Campbell, the public perception of Mormons–“that they have a lot of money and are willing to work for a socially conservative cause”–was proven here in spades.

But the financial clout, evidence of a political, rather than spiritual, form of power might turn people off to the church, said Mark Silk, a Trinity College professor of religion in public life.

“That raises the specter not just of Mormon weirdness but also Mormon power as far as cash on the barrel,” said Silk of the Mormon faith’s huge financial support of the anti-gay measure.

Added Silk, “People expect anti-gay referendums to pass–and they do–but it’s California, for crying out loud… not Zion.”

Kilian Melloy reviews media, conducts interviews, and writes commentary for EDGEBoston, where he also serves as Assistant Arts Editor.

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Written by kickingalion

November 27, 2008 at 5:04 am

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