Pointing the finger


There’s a fairly well-known set of bronze doors on the cathedral St. Michael’s in Hildesheim, Germany. The colossal bronze doors have on one side the story of the creation up to the murder of Abel and the other side highlights scenes from the life of Jesus. About half-way down the Genesis retelling, there’s a depiction of Adam and Eve being cast out of the garden. God, understandably angry at His creations for failing to keep a very simple rule, points forcefully at Adam. Adam, in turn, claims it’s all his wife’s fault. Eve, hunched to hide her nakedness, points no less insistently to the serpent. It’s pass the buck, 5000 BC-style. This post could be read as that same story being repeated, not the part about pissing off deity for failing to grasp his reasons but rather the share the blame bit. That’s not really my intention, but I guess part of being Mormon is having an apologetic reflex.

I don’t want you to think that I am actually defending the position of the Mormon Church and their involvement in Prop 8. The position they took, surrounded by sketchy logic, and connected with the statements that they don’t oppose same-sex couples having the rights of marriage without actually getting married doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. It’s either confused or evil or just half-baked. And, barring some revelation that the Brethren have yet to share with us, their fervor is grounded, not too subconsciously, on the cultural mores of a bunch of men seventy years and older. Nor do I feel all that sorry about the protest yesterday outside the LA temple or the one planned tonight for Temple Square. The Church surely knew they were going to raise the ire of a whole bunch of folks by opposing marriage equity. Also, these protests, sadly for those of us who are hurt and annoyed by the church, will probably do very little. Mormons love the sense they’re being persecuted and calling them out like this will only galvanize them further.

But, did Mormons really protect marriage in California? The data seem to suggest that, really, it’s a bit more complicated than that. There’s the obvious fact that Mormons donated a staggering amount of money to the cause and the time and energies of devoted members who manned phone banks, knocked on doors and stood outside polling locations can probably never be quantified. The Church also made public statements outlining its reasons, called special meetings for the Saints to hear higher ups urge them to get involved and willingly signed up with a bunch of people who think we’re all going to hell just to maximize their efforts. On the flipside, the money donated by opponents is also astounding, as was their devotion and volunteer hours. Both sides were highly engaged. The question is which side was more effective. The opponents’ ads, it turns out, had more impact, according to polls. People who had seen both ads agreed that the No on 8 campaign was more persuasive. Of course, given the disparity between exit polls and actual returns, that could be more social desirability bias coming through.

The real answer, as most media outlets are coming to, is that both sides were blindsided by the nature of the electorate in 2008. African-Americans, who turned out in record numbers, voted in favor of banning gay marriage seventy percent. The reasons for these citizens showing up at the polls are complicated, but have a lot to do with the big push of the Democratic Party to get the vote out and the fact that, for the first time, we were voting for an African-American president. I doubt the Dems will soon be changing their publicity materials to include the unsavory fact that getting people involved in democracy can backfire. The efforts to flood the polls with Obama-supporters, though, surely helped the opposition to Prop 8 camp as well. After all, young, first-time voters showed up in droves, and that group is generally more accepting of gay marriage. Unfortunately, though, the African-American and, to a lesser degree, the Latino vote gave marriage “preservation” a lead that couldn’t be surmounted. I find it sad and troubling that the group that should know the most about laws curtailing rights turned out to do the exact same to another group. Of course, we could talk about kick-the-dog syndrome, but I’m not really sure that African-Americans are just picking on a group with weaker social protections. Basically, I don’t get the rationale of African-American voters who said no to gay marriage and I wouldn’t try to guess.

So why, then, given these complications are Mormons getting all the blame? Surely they do deserve part of it if they convinced anyone sitting on the fence to vote for the ban. However, I think four main factors play into the rage. The first has to do with the way the story was reported in the press. Before the election, most reporters seemed to agree that, if Prop 8 passed, it would be because the Mormons have deep pockets and a knack for organizing. [I find it interesting, somewhat as a non-sequitor, that most press kept referring to the “Utah-based Church”, while we never saw “Rome-based Catholic Church” or “Georgia-based Southern Baptist Convention”.] Like everyone else, these reporters didn’t fully expect the African-American voting patterns. The second reason for Mormons getting the blame is that they are an easy target. They have a cohesive structure, they failed to admit that members disagreed on this issue (they sort of did, in their press release response), they have these big temples, they were very vocal and so on. The third, connected closely with being an easy target, is the fact that a lot of the protestors were already upset with the Church for any number of reasons, most of which are quite valid. Prop 8 fallout is just another reason to go picket, or the straw that broke the ruminant.

The fourth reason is the most interesting, at least to me. There’s been quite a bit of talk, ever since Mitt Romney’s bid, about acceptable biases in society. Anti-Mormonism is still a very comfortable bias for most Americans. After all, these people are weird. They believe in becoming gods, polygamy, extreme communalism, secret temple oaths, and they don’t even drink coffee! Even people who don’t openly hate Mormonism don’t have much good to say for it. However, anti-African-American bias is definitely not cool any more. So, all the frustration of the gay rights groups has to go somewhere. Since angry signs and yelling in African-American neighborhoods or in front of heavily black churches would be viewed with repugnance, that bloc of voters isn’t being held responsible. So, instead of pointing the finger accurately, these groups opt for a course that provides an outlet, real blame and a socially acceptable target.

I am glad that the Church has yet to try to point the blame elsewhere. They are taking these protests the way they always do: with silence to suggest dignity and an underlying belief that it’s just one more sign that we’re the chosen people (when, in fact, they should maybe realize that their position is questionable). I’m also happy to know that not all is lost in the fight for marriage equity. There’s a court case with new, compelling logic to be settled (a case that forces the Supreme Court of California to either admit they were wrong a few months ago or claim that it’s kosher to let fundamental rights be taken away from a specific group) and, failing that, it’ll be back on the ballot in 2010. There’s hope. Maybe by that time, the leaders of the Church will have learned to not get involved. But even if they do, it looks like all the time and money in the world don’t make that much difference when all’s said and done.


Petra said...

Nationally, there was no massive youth vote turnout; are you sure there was in CA?

alea said...

What's massive? There was an increase of a percentage point or two of voters who fall between the ages of 18 and 29, and a raw figure of 2.2 million. I think that's pretty big (those figures are national, of course).

Petra said...

One percentage point, from 17 to 18 out of 22. It's big enough to make a difference, given the closeness of the race, but I'd still like to see CA numbers.

Cogger said...

Great post and I agree with much of what your saying. It is my hope that these protests will be successful in getting the church to back off politically on this issue. After all they are shooting themselves in the foot, whether or not it's fair (and I'd say it probable isn't) Mormon is fast becoming synonymous with bigot.

alea said...

cogger: I hope so, too. Sadly, their press release isn't too encouraging, is it?

Anonymous said...


When will you stop lifting your heel against the Lord's anointed?

Cogger said...

No their press release wasn't all that encouraging but I still have hope, it hasn't been very long and I think these protests will continue. Besides they'll need time to think things through, these kinds of changes don't happen overnight. I think the gay rights lobby needs patience after all it was only a couple decades ago that homosexuality was a crime. They're making incredible progress by any metric despite the setbacks. The most significant progress is that acceptance of gays and gay rights is growing among Americans at a steady pace. Though the propositions weren't identical its worth noting that gay marriage lost by 38% in 2000 compared too 47.5% in 2008. And that's with an unusually large turnout of black voters. I think gay marriage is almost guaranteed at some point in the future and the real question is when. Which makes the Latter Day Saints very public advocacy of prop 8 all the more foolish considering the good will it's costing them. @Ryan Alea may or may not be raising her heel at the anointed but your costing the Mormon church future acceptance, and opportunities of expansion in America.

alea said...


two things: Ryan's joking. And, also, just so you know, I'm a guy, my writing style and profession notwithstanding. :)

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