Growing up in the LDS church, we were constantly reminded that our ancestors were targeted and harassed for their religious faith. My own ancestors, the Williamses, were forced to leave Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois by hostile neighbors before finding their refuge in far-off Utah. Our church founder, Joseph Smith, Jr., was murdered by an angry mob of anti-Mormons. I don’t know if I was typical, but I concluded from these stories of persecution that those who stand for the right often are mistreated (and sometimes killed), and such firmness in the face of adversity is heroic. Our ancestors were heroes.
A similar mythos seems to be developing based on the LDS church’s involvement in the 2008 campaign to pass California’s Proposition 8, which amended the state’s constitution to add that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” The church’s involvement in the campaign is well known: the church’s First Presidency sent a letter to be read in every congregation in California urging members to “do all you can” and donate “your means and time” to pass the proposition. This letter was just the beginning. Local church leaders set fundraising goals for their congregation, the church organized phone banks in California and Utah, and the leadership in Salt Lake held satellite broadcasts and training meetings.
If nothing else, the LDS church is highly organized, and the organization paid off in this case. According to the New York Times,
Jeff Flint, [a] strategist with Protect Marriage, estimated that Mormons made up 80 percent to 90 percent of the early volunteers who walked door-to-door in election precincts.
The canvass work could be exacting and highly detailed. Many Mormon wards in California, not unlike Roman Catholic parishes, were assigned two ZIP codes to cover. Volunteers in one ward, according to training documents written by a Protect Marriage volunteer, obtained by people opposed to Proposition 8 and shown to The New York Times, had tasks ranging from “walkers,” assigned to knock on doors; to “sellers,” who would work with undecided voters later on; and to “closers,” who would get people to the polls on Election Day.
Suggested talking points were equally precise. If initial contact indicated a prospective voter believed God created marriage, the church volunteers were instructed to emphasize that Proposition 8 would restore the definition of marriage God intended.
But if a voter indicated human beings created marriage, Script B would roll instead, emphasizing that Proposition 8 was about marriage, not about attacking gay people, and about restoring into law an earlier ban struck down by the State Supreme Court in May.
“It is not our goal in this campaign to attack the homosexual lifestyle or to convince gays and lesbians that their behavior is wrong — the less we refer to homosexuality, the better,” one of the ward training documents said. “We are pro-marriage, not anti-gay.”
So, members used the ward organization to recruit volunteers, assign them to a specific area, and train them with detailed “talking points.”
The article goes on to say that Mormons contributed financially, as well: “In the end, Protect Marriage estimates, as much as half of the nearly $40 million raised on behalf of the measure was contributed by Mormons.” Also, roughly 45% of donations from outside of California came from Utah, a relatively small state.
In the months leading up to the election, many Mormons I talked to seemed proud of their efforts, as if a small group of dedicated and organized people could have a major effect on the world around them. One LDS blogger called Proposition 8 the church’s “last stand” and compared it to Book of Mormon prophets Mormon and Moroni, who fought to “resist growing immorality” at the risk of their lives. He also suggested a parallel to the American Civil War’s Battle of Stone’s River, where a small Union force defeated a Confederate force “three times their size”:
Similarly, with Mormon and Moroni–and with us, today, God requires our presence where we face overwhelming opposition. Though He wants us to fight to win, our personal victory at that point is insignificant, because our presence at where He places us makes it easier for God to win a smashing victory in the war. God is utterly uninterested in whether we can beat legions of men or devils; He could do that by Himself with a flick of His Finger. What He is interested in is whose side we are on. If we answer that the right way, He will redeem us, though we personally are overwhelmed.
But a strange thing happened after the election: Mormons began minimizing their church’s role in the passage of Proposition 8. On November 8, 2008, just after the election, the church issued a statement that “It is disturbing that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is being singled out for speaking up as part of its democratic right in a free election,” asserting that church members were only a few among “millions of others from every faith, ethnicity and political affiliation who voted for Proposition 8.” (I shouldn’t have to say this, but I believe it was wrong to harass Mormons and vandalize church buildings as a response to the defeat of Proposition 8.) And thus a meme was born: “It wasn’t just us. We were just a small part of the process. Singling us out is just persecution, plain and simple.”
To be honest, I hadn’t thought about Prop. 8 in a long time (not being a California resident anymore, and knowing that the issue is working its way through the courts), but then the Deseret News refreshed my memory with an article titled, “Mormon church was unfairly targeted over Prop. 8, BYU professor says.”
I’m not going to argue with the professor, Joel Campbell, about whether Mormons were “singled out” unfairly, but rather, I think it’s instructive to see how the Proposition 8 narrative has evolved in two years. The elements of the meme are all there:
- Minimizing the church’s efforts: “In June 2008, Proposition 8 had qualified for the November ballot and on June 29, 2008, the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints asked that a letter be read in LDS congregations across California stating their support for the proposition and requesting that members support it, too, said Campbell.” If that’s all you knew about the subject, you would think that the church’s sole contribution was a single letter read from the pulpit.
- Emphasizing the efforts of others: “Campbell pointed out the criticism was disproportionate given the number of other pro-proposition groups involved, many much more so than the LDS Church.”
- Framing opposition as anti-Mormon persecution: The backlash against the church is described in the article as “anti-LDS,” a “‘gays versus Mormons’ mindset,” and “defamation and abuse.”
It really is a puzzling narrative. On the one hand, Mormons ought to be proud of what they accomplished. As the New York Times reported, it was indeed Mormon involvement that “tipped the scales” in passing the proposition. But rather than letting their light shine for standing up for the right, there’s been a conspicuous “who, me?” attitude, as if church members were just passengers on the train while others operated the locomotive and shoveled the coal. Disproportionate or not, the backlash targeted the church because the church was the most visible and organized of all the organizations that worked to pass Proposition 8. I’m convinced that the backlash would have been the same had it been AARP or the Elks club or the Promise Keepers who had involved themselves as heavily as the Mormons did. Right or wrong, the LDS church was, organizationally and financially, the single largest group that contributed to the campaign.
But you wouldn’t know that from the DesNews article. I think this idea of disproportionate hostility is at the core of the Mormon persecution narrative: The church, which is merely a small group trying to practice its religion, is singled out for harassment simply for standing up for the right. This is the basic structure of the Ohio-Missouri-Illinois story of anti-Mormon persecution. Take, for example, the Battle of Crooked River in October 1838. Mere months after church leader Sidney Rigdon vowed in a July 4th speech to bring a “war of extermination” to enemies of the church, a group of Mormons led by Apostle David Patten attacked a unit of the Missouri militia, putting the spark to the Mormon War that ended with the expulsion of all church members from Missouri at the risk of extermination. Patten was killed leading a charge against militia positions. Provoked or not, the attack led to a terrible backlash, and yet Mormon history casts the battle as an attempted rescue of church members from a mob, with one church writer describing Patten’s death a “murder.”
The same memes are at work in this story: Minimizing church members’ roles (Patten is murdered by a mob rather than killed while attacking the state militia) while casting the event as a disproportionate response targeting a small minority.
My intent isn’t to place blame on the Mormons for the Missouri mobs, but rather to illustrate that a disputed event with complex causes has become incorporated into a specific narrative about Mormonism’s relationship with the rest of the world. I think that’s what’s happening with the Proposition 8 battle.