Prop 8: Mormon Persecution, Marriage and the Refuge of Patriotism

LOS ANGELESAbout a year ago, a friend from Utah called to tell me that he was gay. I’ll call him James, though that’s absolutely not his real name. This would have been March or April, about six months after Prop 8 passed. We spent two hours on the phone that night, and several more over the next few weeks. He’d talked about it on some anonymous online forums, and even been on one or two tentative dates, but I was otherwise the first person that he told. I wonder now if he chose me because he could call from two thousand miles away: if I were to reject him, at least he wouldn’t have to see my face when I did it. We were both Mormon. He no longer is.

Now, what I remember of this conversation is the hesitancy, my normally exuberant friend dropping off into silence, the awkward phrasing he used. Not “I’m gay,” but “I’ve been struggling with homosexual desires.” This was no accident: it is the language the church uses. His voice caught when he said that he couldn’t tell his family, who are from a part of the world where gay men are regularly shunned or even attacked. He had also been warned that if his university found out, because it is a religious school, he wouldn’t be awarded his degree. But he didn’t sob until he told me how the most important dream in his life was to be a father. He was convinced he would never have that opportunity.

Obviously, there are ways for gay couples to have children, even children who are genetically related to at least one parent. But James imagined fishing trips with his kids and their cousins, rowdy family barbecues, Christmas dinners, everyone traveling to celebrate the baptism of another grandchild. These were the things he’d grown up with, the things he couldn’t wait to do for himself, but he was sure that coming out would destroy his relationship with his family. James didn’t want to leave the church, but he couldn’t pretend to be straight any longer. Most of the other Mormon gay men I know have also left.¹ A few are sticking around, paying a high personal cost for their choice.

When Proposition 8 came up for voting in 2008, I was one of the (progressive, East Coast, probably elitist) Mormons totally aghast at what the church was doing in California to influence the result. The church itself, while it can’t lobby for candidates as part of its 501(c)(3) tax exemption, can, quite legally, lobby for issues, as long as that time is duly reported, and what a court would deem as a “substantial” portion of the organization’s resources doesn’t go towards those activities. For example, most American churches took a side on Prohibition.² Even so, I had never seen the church mobilize on a political point the way it did in California. And I had never seen the resulting backlash play so easily into a Mormon persecution complex, transforming what was essentially an internal doctrinal position into a battleground between the church and its surrounding communities.


Individual patriotism-generally of the conservative variety, but not always-has been a central Mormon value for most of the 20th century. There are many reasons for this, but the short version is that in the late 1800s, Mormons had to be as American as possible in order to allow Utah to enter the U.S. as a full state. Statehood had become necessary because of the Edmunds-Tucker Act, passed in 1887, which removed most political protections for citizens of U.S territories that were practicing polygamy, and allowed the federal government to seize Mormon property. When the Act was upheld by the Supreme Court, the church banned the practice of polygamy as part of a set of economic and cultural concessions that would make the Mormon communities in Utah acceptable to the country as a whole, and part of its political system. Statehood was granted in 1896.

Since then, members of the church, even those without pioneer ancestry, have passed down from generation to generation a commitment to the civil process. Sometimes this renders in strange ways: when leaders of the early 20th-century church in Utah feared that believers might vote en masse, congregations were split and one half was told to vote for one party, the other half its opponent. Which defeats the purpose of voting at all, but points for trying, I guess. What’s important is that the Mormon community was trying desperately to fit in as an American one after having been driven out of the United States in the 1840s for being exactly the opposite.

I won’t spend a lot of time on the terror campaigns against Mormons in Ohio, Missouri and Illinois. Suffice it to say, most contemporary Mormons remember them, particularly the ugliness of incidents like the Haun’s Mill Massacre, in which a militia descended upon the farming settlement of Haun’s Mill, putting their gun muzzles up to the gaps in the walls of a building where the town’s men and young boys had taken refuge, killing everyone inside. Often this violence was state-sanctioned: Governor Boggs’ 1838 extermination order in Missouri, that “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary,” wasn’t formally rescinded until 1976. Not long after the assassination of Joseph Smith and other leaders in 1844, the members of the church headed West for good. It’s not surprising, then, that the Mormon response has been, as a culture, to wear a lot of flag pins.

So, the LDS church has reasons to want to fit in, and until recently, did so easily. Members were encouraged to vote, whichever country they lived in, and while there was an obvious Republican majority among American members, there were also prominent Democrats within the church leadership. It seemed that we had managed to achieve both religious freedom and political equanimity. In 2003, President George W. Bush presented the National Medal of Arts to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

The question, then, is why the church would risk its hard-won truce over homosexuality, of all things. Especially since the doctrine of polygamy was eradicated in favor of statehood, the church has worked hard to draw the lines of the male/female Venn diagram, and the differences between genders as the church explains them, usually in terms of “roles,” are an ongoing subject of tension. (For more on that, spend some time in the archives of the excellently-named blog Feminist Mormon Housewives.) A major document, the Proclamation on the Family, released by the church in 1995, is the most recent and coherent attempt to lay out the Mormon theology around gender. Among its major points: gender is an eternal characteristic of one’s soul; marriage and family relationships are also eternal; and that salvation comes in part through sealing families together in some of the church’s most holy ceremonies. To be sealed in the temple is both a marriage and something far greater in the eyes of Mormons.

As currently described, there is no room for homosexuality, because marriage is defined as a relationship that exists purely between a man and a woman. (Note the phrasing there: “a man and a woman.” As in one each, as in “please let’s not talk about polygamy, everyone.”) You could make the argument that this arrangement exists because only heterogeneous pairs can produce children, but the church has no issue with couples adopting and having those children sealed to them. In the eyes of the church, adopted children are as much a part of a family as any biological children would be. It’s the sealing that’s important, and that’s the thing that’s unavailable to gays.

The irony that an organization once threatened with violence over its weird marriage practices would try to legislate against other people’s marriages is not lost on anyone. But the nightmare of some in the church is that somehow, if gay marriage were legal, it would be forced to marry gay couples in its own temples: absolute sacrilege.

Now, as homosexuality-as fundamental characteristic, not “sin”–has come to seem so normal, so everyday, the idea that gays would be shut out of these vital ceremonies and relationships is becoming steadily more unpalatable, especially to younger Mormons, many of whom, like me, know gay men and women who leave the church because there is no home for them there. Certainly there is a fair amount of homophobia and cultural resistance to the very idea of homosexuality in the church. But it’s the doctrinal foundation that makes many members go along, even uneasily, with the church’s statements on gay marriage.

So, look at Prop 8. On one hand you have the church, with a complicated set of doctrinal and cultural reasons to feel threatened by gay marriage; on the other, a civil rights movement that, to many lay members, had the moral high ground. And all of this was taking place in a context in which the church rarely muddies the waters between an individual’s civil life and devotional one. In my lifetime, I haven’t seen the church rock so hard. In public addresses, leaders continued to express love for all people, particularly gays, even as local bishops in California, sanctioned by higher-ups, were asking members to go door-to-door and work against the rights of some of those same people.

The dissonance resounded. A few left the church, or moved from California so they wouldn’t have to go against the requests of their leaders. On the web of Mormon blogs–affectionately called “the bloggernacle” after the Tabernacle building in Salt Lake City–hundreds of believing Mormons despaired at the position they’d been put in. We were being pushed into a political stance that had nothing at all to do with politics: the doctrinal complaint against homosexuality has little to do with the civil marriage arrangement.

Things got worse when the gay rights community-legitimately!-lashed out against the Mormons and other religious groups that supported Prop 8. Given the Mormon martyr history and our collective sensitivity to the need for religious freedom, it became all too easy to take a line of defense there. Some members, remembering Haun’s Mill and the ancestors buried along the westward trail to Utah, began to feel a certain self-righteousness that fueled their conviction that the church was in the right.

Unfortunately, few things settle one’s opinions like being persecuted for them. In November 2008, an ugly protest outside the Los Angeles temple only inflamed the sensibility. What had been a nuanced, complex issue regarding the Mormon theology around the make-up of the soul, the process of eternal salvation and the importance of families morphed into a minor war taking place on civil ground. And those of us caught in between felt we had no choice but to align ourselves with the homophobic coalition or to betray our religious community.

Now, the recent news that the church will be fined for its lobbying comes as a painful reminder of an issue that most would prefer disappear entirely. I know no one who would argue that the fine isn’t warranted. The church is legally responsible for its actions, absolutely, obviously. But the ruling solves nothing. Rather, it’s a sharp jab in an unhealed wound-which won’t heal any faster when the federal court verdict on Prop 8 itself comes down. Personally, I fear that the breach between gays and the LDS church as a body has become unbridgeable for the foreseeable future.

I hope this doesn’t read as an apologetic. I found my church’s involvement in California to be wretched and underhanded. My crises of faith are multiple, and this is a pretty big one. But here’s the thing: to be Christian is to claim as truth the idea that one person can atone for another’s sin, and that hell is to reject forgiveness when it is offered. Overtures have been made. For example, the church has worked with gay rights activists in Salt Lake City to lobby against discrimination on the part of landlords and employers. It’s a small thing, depressingly small, but it exists.

My friend James has graduated, is working on projects he’s excited about, and is slowly starting to tell members of his family that he is gay. He tells me that his parents were crushed, but have been nothing but loving and supportive, even of his decision to leave. It’s good to see him freed of some of that weight, and I’m happy for him. I hope he gets the chance to marry whomever he likes, if he ever wants to, and that he gets to be a father later in his life. Point is: I haven’t written about his story here because I think he’s a symbol for anything. He’s just a dude, and my friend, whom I love. But there might be some grace to that last thing. Some.

¹ I’m not sure why I haven’t had this conversation with any gay women in the church. Either I don’t know any–unlikely–or they fly lower under the radar. Perhaps, if they leave the church, they don’t cite their sexuality as a factor. Certainly there are other gender-related reasons for women to leave the church, but that’s a post for another day. And many people leave the church for reasons that have nothing at all to do with sexuality.

² While researching this essay, I also learned that the church prevented the building of a missile base in Utah in the 80s, on anti-war grounds. Someone tell Mitt Romney.

Xarissa Holdaway is a writer and editor who no longer has a blog. She always appreciates thoughtful mail at xevenstars [at] gmail [dot] com.

Photo by Eric Mueller from Flickr.