(Editor’s note: Those of us who lived through Proposition 8 experienced the unholy alliance of Catholics, Fundamentalists and Mormons to discredit the LGBT and ally community. The Rev. Canon Albert Ogle, author of SDGLN’s weekly faith and religion column RGOD2, witnessed the same forces at work in the UN AIDS plan last summer where all references to LGBT and other “most at risk” populations globally were removed from the draft Declaration. The financial impact to programs and potential human suffering that could result from this religiously-inspired position is alarming. The prime actor at the UN was a Mormon, Sharon Slater from Family Watch International. Ogle says his concern is that under the guise of protecting a narrow definition of the “family,” this unholy alliance is now moving closer in an attempt to take the White House. We invited Rob Donaldson, a former Mormon who is a member of St. Paul’s in San Diego, to write a guest column of RGOD2 and give us some insights into what might be in store for us if Mitt Romney becomes President of the United States of America.)
“We had no idea they could do this. We never saw it coming. By the time we realized their impact, it was too late. But it won’t happen again.”
I’ve heard this from marriage equality advocates ever since California’s Proposition 8 passed, as they reflected on Mormon intervention in that election. And now, with Mitt Romney’s likely nomination as the Republican presidential candidate, many ask if he’ll try to roll back advances in equality nationally, in favor of the agenda that gave us DOMA and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and Prop 8.
As someone born and raised in the Mormon church, and with experience in local Mormon leadership, I think the answer is “possibly.” A Romney presidency could well try to scale back LGBT rights and religious freedom. But not in the ways some might think.
In my experience, many LGBT persons have no idea how or why the Mormons accomplished what they did in the Prop 8 election or whether Romney actually threatens LGBT rights. So here’s a bit of perspective.
Why the Mormons supported Proposition 8
Mormonism is like the world of Apple products: a walled garden within which everything is designed to work seamlessly together. That’s fine, if you’re content to stay inside and accept doctrine, worldview, life choices and culture dictated by others. Mormonism relentlessly stresses obedience to leaders; even the kids are taught songs about it.
But people and issues that don’t fit the design of the garden are not well-tolerated, nor is public disagreement with church leaders. And no other religion has a theology so focused on sex as Mormonism.
19th-century American gender roles are cemented firmly into Mormon beliefs, which have the ultimate goal of married husband/wife couples becoming just like God, procreating endlessly and creating worlds for countless children. Current leaders downplay this Mormon teaching because it sounds weird to non-Mormons, but it remains a bedrock doctrinal principle.
Christian theology says God loves everyone equally. Mormon theology goes further and says everyone can achieve godhood IF they marry an opposite-sex spouse and spend their lives following Mormon teachings.
This combination of principles is what makes Mormons loathe to believe gay people were “born that way” or can’t change. If they concede that, it means some people don’t fit the Mormon model and there’s no explanation for it. It means God might not have created all his children equally. In a church that stresses “knowing” its teachings are true, which considers someone weak in faith if they say they merely “believe” them true, which claims that it alone has God’s authority and modern revelation and is the only authorized conduit to return to God, it’s very difficult to even consider there may be such a huge gap in the plan, that the walled garden is drastically incomplete.
To their credit, I’ve heard a few local Mormon leaders concede that the church has no answers for its gay members. They are correct. But senior Mormon leaders cling to their 19th-century gender role theology, which has no place for the very concept of homosexuality. Mormon doctrine does say the scriptural canon is open and God has yet to reveal many things, but in fact the church resists anything but glacial change and is loath to think itself unfinished.
Still, the men who lead the Mormon church are not dim bulbs. They know that Prop 8 trashed the church’s reputation. There’s reason to think a few of them might consider liberalization. And there are signs of re-thinking among some rank and file. But only the president of the church can make the kind of change that matters, and any equalizing of same-sex relationships would require him to re-write the theology more radically than has ever been done before.
The last few Mormon presidents have all been theological conservatives and every potential successor for decades to come looks the same. So any change of the currently predominant Mormon belief that same-sex marriage and relationships are spiritually fatal is likely to be far in the future, if it happens at all.
Why nobody expected Prop 8 to win
To enter a Mormon temple after dedication, one must be an active church member, interview with two local leaders who ask a series of probing questions, and certify that one is living by demanding church standards (which include a 10% annual tithe on gross income). Only then does one receive a signed “recommend” card for temple admission.
Fewer than half of active Mormons qualify, and fewer than half of all Mormons are “active” (attend church once a month). So those who do qualify are deeply committed to the cause.
Less well-known is what happens inside the temples. And this is why the No on 8 campaign was blindsided by the Mormons in 2008.
Temple ceremonies involve a series of covenants with God. The last and most sacrosanct is that if the church asks, the person making the covenant will give all their time, talents, money and everything they have to the church. Catholicism extracted no such commitment from JFK, but Mitt Romney has made this promise.
So had countless other California Mormons who on June 29, 2008 heard a letter read in church from the Mormon church president, asking that they “do all [they] can to support” Prop 8 “by donating of [their] means and time to assure that marriage in California is legally defined as being between a man and a woman.” To Mormons who had been to a temple, that wasn’t just a request for political support. It was a living prophet summoning them to keep the most important of all covenants they had made with God.
And that’s why a massive political machine almost instantly sprang into existence, poured $20 million into the fight, and stunned the No on 8 campaign irreparably. No on 8 never thought the Mormons capable of such a thing, because they didn’t understand how Mormons viewed marriage equality or the call from their leader.
This is also why the “equal civil rights” argument and the “it doesn’t harm your marriage” argument don’t work for most Mormons. Since they believe marriage is not just divinely designed for social order but eternally essential, most Mormons see marriage equality not as a matter of civil rights but of unchangeable principle, and they truly believe society and future generations will be harmed by “legitimizing” a “lifestyle alternative” that they think diverts people from God’s approved path. It’s therefore a moral issue to them, one of presumptuous humans daring to redefine and thus ruin a divine institution. Mormon church presidents have spoken against this, and for the faithful, that’s the same as God speaking. End of discussion.
Possible effects of a Romney presidency
Given the above, it’s not surprising that Romney supports a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman, opposes marriage equality and civil unions, and supports DOMA.
Mormonism is not just a religion, it’s a culture, a worldview. That outlook must inevitably influence Mormons’ political beliefs. And while not all Mormons see things the same way politically, most American Mormons tend to. Romney represents that majority. His record on LGBT issues is actually one of moving away from equality and toward discrimination.
So, will Mormon leaders ask Romney to carry out his temple covenant like California Mormons did? Could Salt Lake actually influence Washington? Does Romney threaten the separation of church and state?
Answers: No, no, and possibly.
Mormon leaders are hypersensitive to the church’s public image. They know the public outcry that would result if they even seemed to try to influence Romney. They’ll avoid any appearance of meddling. Any Mormon influence in a Romney presidency and any potential threat to separation of church and state will result not from Mormon church action but from how Romney tries to translate his own church-influenced beliefs into public policy.
A Federal marriage amendment, like DOMA, would enshrine one religious view as secular law. If a Romney Administration pushed these issues, court battles and social divisiveness would certainly be prolonged, and the line between church and state would blur.
Yet Romney is a pragmatic businessman, not a culture warrior. DOMA has already been held unconstitutional. Support for a Federal marriage amendment may rally the pre-election faithful, but demographics already doom such an amendment in the long run. It will never pass. And the ever-pragmatic Romney may prove reluctant to spend political capital on what are already trending toward losing causes.
His biggest impact on LGBT equality issues would be with U.S. Supreme Court appointees. The next president could appoint more than one new justice. Romney would certainly pick conservative ones, so those who care about LGBT rights and marriage equality are likely to back Obama.
The past few days we’ve seen news coverage about Mormon attitudes “softening” on gay issues. For the rest of that story, and some personal perspectives, check back next week for Part II.