**This article appeared in Political Research Associates’ 2012 report Resisting the Rainbow: Right-Wing Responses to LGBT Gains
The first time many people concerned with LGBT rights learned about the Mormon Church’s anti-LGBT activism was in 2008, when it played a major role in winning passage of California’s Proposition 8, the ballot measure repealing same sex marriage in the state. But the Mormon Church’s organizing against LGBT rights dates back even earlier, to Hawaii in the 1990s, and it took lessons from that campaign, including its use of secrecy, all the way to California. The church also brought its billions in expendable cash and a political savvy rarely seen from modern religions.
Those championing equality can also learn lessons, however, and in the aftermath of the California defeat, we learned that the Mormon Church – which for historical reasons is desperately frightened of public opinion and societal pressure, even more than most churches – can be pressured into changing its positions. And its rigid hierarchy means that an institutional decision to change can have wide-reaching effects, for good and ill.
The Mormon Church
Most people outside of Utah are only vaguely aware of Mormons and Mormonism, perhaps hearing something about their (former) embrace of polygamy, or seen the clean cut youth ringing doorbells seeking new members in the missionary work required of all male members.
But what most people don’t know or understand is the absolute airtight control the church holds over its members which reaches an almost incomprehensible level unless you were raised within its iron grasp. The Mormons model its church hierarchy after the structure led by Jesus as seen in the New Testament. The head of the church is ordained as a “Prophet” who works with the equivalent of a board of directors, known in this case as the “Twelve Apostles.” From there, leadership reaches down through general and area authorities, positions which can only be held by men who are as a group ordained to what the Mormon’s call priesthood. Mormons believe that their “prophet” and “twelve apostles” are in direct (and in-person) communication with God and Jesus. Any resistance to even the smallest command or doctrine their leaders give them is tantamount to apostasy and subject to punishment.
While many religious organizations oppose same-sex couples being married, the Mormon Church is one of the few which has taken proactive legal measures to fight against it. . This opposition stems from how they see an afterlife. In Mormon doctrine, all aspects of life and religion center on the family, which is comprised of a Father (who holds the Priesthood and presides over the family), a Mother (who supports the Father), and children. After death, Mormonism claims that those who have been sufficiently righteous and fulfilled all the tenets of their religion continue with their family in Heaven. Once there, parents continue to have children and the Father takes on more wives and becomes a God over a new world. Same-sex relationships threaten this version of the afterlife, as gay couples are not able to procreate.
A challenge to heterosexual dominance thus is seen as a challenge to the Mormon Church’s theology and hierarchy. It acts to forestall any change in public opinion from within their membership that would turn them against the church and its antiquated policies. The fight against LBGT rights thus becomes a fight for the very life of the church. Although no court of law or legislature would ever force them to change their doctrine, the next generation of members could drop out if their religious leaders refused to adopt a more egalitarian approach.
Hawaii: The Fight Begins
The Mormon Church began its campaign against marriage equality in earnest during the 1990s during the first real battle over marriage, in Hawaii. In 1993, the state supreme court had declared that the state was violating its constitution in denying marriage licenses to gays and lesbians. In 1998, conservative religious forces successfully pushed a referendum adding an anti-gay marriage amendment to the constitution to stop any confusion. At the heart of those forces was the Mormon Church.
Many Americans, particularly evangelicals, are suspicious of Mormons, leading the church to craft a brilliant strategy of coalition building with other Christian religions that inspire some suspicion, particularly Roman Catholics. While the Mormons could (and did) provide funding and volunteers, these other religions were the coalition’s public face. The Catholic Church and other visible allies would thereby absorb any public backlash directed towards the coalition, while the Mormons could push their agenda without any serious consequences to their public image.
The trial run of this coalition went public in 1998. Calling itself “The Hawaii Christian Coalition,” it immediately began the work of pushing all Mormons in Hawaii to send money to the coalition and offer thousands of hours of volunteer work. Internal church documents, obtained by gay political watchdog and now Republican Presidential candidate Fred Karger, revealed just how orchestrated the church’s plan was from the top of the hierarchy. Starting several years before the actual vote, letters flowed among the “twelve apostles” and other high-ranking leaders.
The letters reveal an explicit concern with bad publicity.1 “The LDS Church receives a lukewarm favorability rating in Hawaii,” one says. “This information suggests that the church should maintain a very low visibility in this campaign.” A 1996 letter from Elder Neil A Maxwell to Elder Russell M Ballard reads, “Our survey tells us we can get greater public support by working with [a] coalition than if we tried to do this as a church,” followed soon after with the message that “the first overtures to the Catholic Church have been made.”
This plan reveals a methodical, organized and precision attack. Karger exposed letters flowing back and forth between high-ranking Mormons discussing the details of the campaign and how to handle particular issues. They sought to keep their financial support away from the public eye as can been seen in a March 21st, 1996 letter from Mormon leaders to then-Church President Gordon Hinckley: “The coalition continues to raise money but the majority needs to come from us. Checks should be from individuals and can go to ‘Hawaii’s Future Today.’” They also hired a full time lobbyist to work within the legislature, Linda Rosehill. In the same letter, they report, “Linda Rosehill only has to report her retainer for actual lobbying work and it is likely most of the contributions can be kept from disclosure.” Another internal memo says, “We have organized things so the church contribution was used in an area of coalition activity that does not have to be reported.”
The campaign succeeded and the Mormons, flush with not only the victory of the campaign but also the success of their invisibility pulling strings behind the scenes, turned their attention to California. , Mormon officials wrote Elder Russell M Ballard, “The miracle of this whole issue is that the focus has been on the coalition and not at any time has either our church or the Catholics been singled out… We believe California is very ripe for a successful ballot initiative.” It is not known why they did not begin that campaign at the time, but analysts assume that the other religions involved in the coalition were not willing to lend their full support until the California Supreme Court enacted marriage equality in May 2008.
Mormon Church Tactics in California
Two of the most effective strategies used to sway the average voter against LGBT equality are first, tell them their children will be harmed, and second, tell them their religion will be damaged. The Mormon hierarchy deployed both of these fear mongering strategies during the Proposition 8 campaign in California to change the state constitution so that it bans marriage equality. Soon after the California Supreme Court ruled LGBT marriage constitutional, websites cropped up bearing the Mormon Church’s emblem and featuring young adults discussing how churches and local Wards would have to shut down unless Proposition 8 passed. TV commercials told the story of how public school children would begin teaching gay marriage with the children’s book “King & King.” Combined with web commercials falsely claiming that Proposition 8 would not actually strip rights from same sex couples, and you have the perfect breeding ground of misinformation, fear and motivation for mobilizing parents and religious believers.
Funding and Canvassing
To make the fear mongering effective, the church added massive funding and volunteer-hours. There isn’t an organization in the world better able to deploy door-to-door volunteers in an instant than the Mormon Church, simply because it already does it every day. Through various church duties and religious social events, the model of volunteers, team captains and overseers are already prepped and require only a new message for a political campaign. Volunteer teams, instructed specifically to avoid Mormon-identified clothing such as black suits and white shirts, began combing every neighborhood of California. The door-to-door canvassing grew so quickly that within a matter of months volunteers were out 24 hours a day.
The funding grew by leaps and bounds as Church leaders pressured members to give every cent they could towards the Yes On 8 campaign. And it wasn’t just California members; Utah families donated millions of dollars. Utah singles were pushed to join volunteer call-centers where they spent hours calling California residents, urging them to vote against civil liberties.
Realizing that a front group could help present the Mormon case, in late 2007 the Church used high-ranking Mormon Matthew Holland (son of Apostle Jeffrey Holland) to launch the National Organization For Marriage (NOM), according to Karger. Holland recruited not only several board members but its director and spokeswoman Maggie Gallagher, according to Karger. Whether the funding for NOM originally came from, and possibly is still coming from, the Mormon Church is unknown. The group has been fighting tooth nail and claw to keep its books hidden from public view. It has defied the orders of several judges and \ appeals each ruling against it for violating campaign laws by hiding its funders.
The Mormon Church Proves Vulnerable
After California voted in Prop 8, the Mormon Church thought it had achieved its pinnacle of success. Even the usually liberal stronghold of California was convinced to support its conservative ideals. But unlike in Hawaii in the 1990s, the Mormons could not keep their participation in the struggle quiet. Social networking makes it harder to keep secrets tightly held.. The world knew the Mormon Church helped lead the campaign, and the world saw what it had done.
The morning of November 5th, 2008 marked the beginning of the end for the battle against equality. Millions of people nationwide stood as one, as thousands of new activists were born in the wildfire of outrage. And at the center of the heat stood the Mormon Church, completely unprepared for the backlash it had released against itself. The criticism was overwhelming. Protests surrounding Mormon temples broke out daily in locations nationwide for the next several weeks, news pundits brought their viewers to tears with heartfelt and sincere condemnation of the evil, which had been perpetrated, against the families of California. Constitutional scholars, examining the propaganda broadcast by the Yes On 8 campaign quickly denounced its messaging.
Mormon officials cried out in surprise, claiming that they had only played a small part in the campaign and other groups like the Roman Catholics or the African American community were much more responsible. But the evidence was overwhelming, and concerned Americans saw through its facade of non-involvement .
The Challenge from Within the Church
With their worst fear – public exposure — realized, Mormon leaders began receiving complaints from their own members. Mormons upset over their own Church’s involvement began forming groups across the nation. The most prominent, Mormonsformarriage.com, collected thousands of signatures and stories in a challenge to Mormon leaders, demanding that they change their position and stop damaging families with their homophobia.
As the weeks turned into months, the criticism continued to grow. A year after the vote on Proposition 8 the LGBT community in Utah won a tangible victory. Social pressure and negative public opinion have historically been the weak point of the Church. In the past it prompted the church to quit practicing polygamy, support equal civil rights for women, and allow full membership for people of color kept in second class status. Now it worked again.
In an attempt to assuage the public, Mormon leaders endorsed a proposed Salt Lake City ordinance outlawing housing and employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. A relatively small concession, but it purchased the leverage they hoped for in converting their image from an unfeeling corporate-religious monster to a more understanding and heartfelt organization.
Things began to die down. Then in October 2010 the Mormon second-in-command, Boyd K Packer, broadcast a now infamous speech stating, in the face of all science, that (among other things) homosexuality could be “cured.” This one speech once again unleashed the tide of public ire. Activists led by the group PRIDEinUtah and even many members of the faith itself gathered at the Church’s headquarters in Salt Lake City, furious at the damage perpetrated against young LGBT children raised within the Mormon faith. Nearly 5,000 people surrounded the two-block headquarters, dressed all in black and “died,” enacting the suicides they said Packer’s words would cause.
Once again, societal pressure moved the church. The rally and demonstration were broadcast across the nation, with footage running on many major news channels including CNN. Shortly after, Boyd Packer’s speech was edited and the official record of the Church removed many of his more inflammatory statements. The original text read, “Some suppose that they were pre-set and cannot overcome what they feel are inborn tendencies toward the impure and unnatural. Not so! Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone? Remember he is our father.” The edited version changed the “tendencies” to “temptations” as well as completely removed the line about why God would do that to someone. That’s a significant change when you consider the difference between god wanting or not wanting you to be gay.2
The Challenge from Outside the Church
But that wasn’t the only change to come from Packer’s speech. The Human Rights Campaign, the national LGBTQ rights group, prodded into action by Utah activists, circulated a petition against the Mormon Church denouncing Packer’s remarks as unscientific and harmful.,
Almost two years after the passage of Prop 8, Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese hand-delivered 150,000 signatures to the Mormon headquarters in Salt Lake City.3 Unable to escape the press once again, the Mormon leaders made two further concessions after this action. First they publicly condemned anti-LGBT bullying of any kind, and second they revised the leadership handbook used by local leaders. The new edition no longer compared homosexuality to forcible rape or encouraged reparative therapy.
The lesson is learned, and is now spreading around the country. Whether it is the Mormon Church or any other religion, this example shows that while conservative Christians may have a right to their beliefs , there are limits to what the public will accept when they try to impose those beliefs on others. For more and more Americans, it is no longer tolerable for large religious institutions to attack families, children and people who are not straight. And thanks to the Mormon’s involvement and coordination of the anti-LGBT campaign for Proposition 8, our country has finally woken up to the necessity of equality for all citizens. I truly feel it is a watershed, spreading support for equal rights from coast to coast. We have seen how to change the course of history, and we will never be the same. Equality is inevitable.
- Filmmaker Reed Cowan drew on Karger’s documents in his 2009 documentary “8: the Mormon Proposition,” which is the source of the quotes that follow.
- Eric Ethington, “Mormon Church: Wanting Gay Rights Is Like Opposing Gravity,”PRIDEinUtah, September 27-October 1, 2010. http://prideinutah.com/?p=4397
- HRC Delivers Petition Against Mormon Leader Boyd Packer’s Anti-Gay Message, On Top magazine, October 12, 2010, http://www.ontopmag.com/article.aspx?id=6588&MediaType=1&Category=26