Guest Post: On Christianity and Proposition 8
Robert John Williams is finishing up his Ph.D in comparitive literature in So Cal. His band, Faded Paper Figures, has just released its first CD.
I wasn’t going to write anything publicly on this issue. The question of gay marriage comes up every few years (usually as a way of mobilizing politically people who are otherwise relatively non-political), and will probably come up again. I figured it would become an issue for more conservative Mormons, much like gun-ownership, flag-burning, etc. etc., but that the church would exercise its political muscles in its more typically subtle, cultural way—not explicitly demanding officially that church members get involved on one side of the issue. But it appears that the frenetic piousness of American evangelism has recruited the Mormon leadership to join the cause in a more overt and intrusive way. The First Presidency letter read over the pulpit a few weeks ago admits as much (i.e. that Mormon leaders were asked to join in a “coalition” with more conservative, openly homophobic churches). I suppose I understand that the First Presidency felt obligated to join the cause; having campaigned aggressively for a similar cause in 2000, they would have looked like traitors to pass on the issue this time around. But what is really surprising to me is that the California branches of the church would have forgotten how extremely alienating their activism on this issue was for certain members of the church, and for certain segments of the larger California population.
Nonetheless, with the First Presidency on board, and an official injunction to give of our “time and means” to Proposition 8, the Mormons in my ward have become politically active in a way that is truly breathtaking. One prominent, wealthy member of the ward who serves in the capacity of Public Relations for the church, and whose email listserve regularly bombards its recipients with editorials expounding the cultural evils of gayness, has become something of a leader in the cause. But he’s hardly alone in my ward. The bishop has testified several times on the issue, and his secretary recently sent out an email (signed by the bishopric) to the entire ward asking that members of the ward volunteer in the “substantial effort to mobilize support for passage of Proposition 8.” The ward has distributed envelopes, asking us to donate money to the cause. Sign-up sheets have been passed around Elder’s Quorum asking us to volunteer to make phone calls, go door-to-door, and distribute anti-gay-marriage propaganda.
For a number of reasons I’ll describe below, I find myself on the opposite side of this political issue. So far, though, I haven’t done much in the way of protest. I’ve been wearing a rainbow ribbon to church, along with my rainbow sandals, and if someone asks me, I’m happy to discuss, very civilly, my political views. But I haven’t born any testimony about it in sacrament meeting. I haven’t started a conversation about it on my own with anyone in church. And I didn’t mention homosexuality in any of my Sunday school lessons (a calling from which I was recently released—though ostensibly not for political reasons….ahem…even though the person they replaced me with is undoubtedly the most conservative, scripturally literalist member of the ward). So when I recently visited Utah and my mother asked me to take off my rainbow ribbon before attending the baby blessing of my niece, I felt a bit uncomfortable. The truth is, I was already uncomfortable wearing the ribbon to church. I don’t particularly want to talk about gay marriage with my mostly-conservative fellow church members. But I wasn’t the one who decided to turn the chapel into an arena for political discussion. This was imposed upon us by a “coalition” of other, less-true churches, and our leaders have decided to go along. So be it. Let’s talk about it. Why would a good Mormon possibly oppose the grand political machinations currently at work in church to pass Proposition 8? Why would I feel compelled to wear a rainbow ribbon to church, even though it makes me and my family feel uncomfortable?
In C.S. Lewis’s classic Screwtape Letters, the senior devil Screwtape comments to his young nephew, Wormwood: “It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.” The idea Screwtape goes on to expound is that if the devil can distract you from some greater good by convincing you to put all of your energies into some other, entirely inconsequential activity, you’ll be so worried about that other thing, you’ll completely ignore the larger good. In church we are told that Proposition 8 is not motivated by disdain for homosexuals, but by a sacred responsibility to protect heterosexual marriage. And it is true, undoubtedly, that marriage in the U.S. is in serious trouble. Divorce has become endemic, and its causes are numerous. However, even the most cursory glance at the statistical information on divorce shows that the legal status of homosexual unions is not a cause of heterosexual divorce (in fact, it’s not on any of the lists of reasons for divorce, anywhere!).
More to the point, financial problems, infidelity, major life trauma, and sexual dysfunction are all major causes of divorce. Consider, for example, how many marriages have been torn apart by the war in Iraq. According to this report, just last year there were more than 10,000 divorces in the U.S. Army. Two years after the war started (and it has gotten worse since), the divorce rate for enlisted personnel was up 28 percent—and for officers it was up 78 percent. And that is not counting the more than 100,000 Iraqi civilian families that have been torn apart by the death of a spouse (death being, of course, an even more devastating way to end a marriage here in mortality). What this means–in the most basic, empirical, totally provable sense–is that if Mormons were to become active in ending the war in Iraq, they would be instrumental in saving tens of thousands of marriages. But instead, they are campaigning for Proposition 8, which does nothing to save any marriages, at all. 100,000+ marriages or 0. You decide which the devil would have you campaign for most aggressively (I’ll be fighting for the 100,000+).
However, in fighting for that symbolic (yet completely inconsequential, for them) gesture, some Mormons have begun spreading deliberate and paranoid lies about what gay marriage would mean for the church and the country. I have heard, for example, that if Prop 8 does not pass, Mormons will be forced to allow gay people to get married in the temple. I’ve heard that teachers at school will be forced to read homosexually-charged literature with their children—and that our young Mormon kids will be consequently confused and drawn into to a gay lifestyle. I’ve heard that orphanages will be forced to hand over their children to sexually abusive gay couples (even though, obviously, a single responsible gay person can already adopt a child and live with that child with their gay partner). All of these are lies, of course. But the larger issue here is that whereas the government has a responsibility not to discriminate among its people, a church is entirely free to go on discriminating however it wants. My own feeling is that the church has every right to decide what counts as a “marriage” in church, but that the government has no right to decide whether a union between two consenting adults is or isn’t a “marriage.” It’s a position Brigham Young would have been very comfortable with.
But of course the use of scare quotes on “marriage” already gives away what it is we’re really arguing about: semantics, definitions, symbolic status. Marriage has been defined as “between a man and a woman” for a long time, right? The majority of the population defines it that way, right? Why should a small minority of people who feel like what they have is “marriage” actually be allowed to call it “marriage” if it actually offends the larger majority? These are certainly interesting questions for Mormons. “We’re Christians!” we like to tell our neighbors. “Just because the larger population of Christians don’t consider us Christians, so what? We’re still Christians!” And of course we’re just arguing semantics, right? Definitions, and symbolic status, right? It’s interesting that we don’t like it when it goes the other way.
I’ve really had to ask myself recently, are we Christians? If Christ were alive today, what would he be campaigning for politically? Would it be Prop 8, that merely symbolic, word-based initiative with no real impact on the marriages of the U.S. (except to grant that status to a group of people born slightly different from the majority)? Or would he be wearing a rainbow ribbon to church, loving even people who are different from the majority? Or would he actually have moved beyond such silly political games, and be actively campaigning to end genocide in Darfur? Maybe he would be campaigning to end the war in Iraq. Or to fight the massive starvation that currently faces the 1 billion people on the planet who live on less than a dollar a day. My dear Mormon friends, if we want to be considered Christians, perhaps it’s time we started acting like Christians—real Christians. If we could channel these political energies into something truly Christian, just think of what we could do!
Robert John Williams
P.S. to anyone who would like to respond to this post, have the courage to do so with your own name. Anonymous (read: cowardly) responses will not get you points in heaven.