by Kilian Melloy
Thursday May 13, 2010
By now, you’ve heard the story–or at least some version of it: in 1996, when Hawaii was looking at the possibility of becoming the first state to allow marriage equality (Massachusetts took that honor eight years later), the leadership of the Mormon Church began to draw plans for how to influence the political process and deny gay and lesbian families access to marital parity.
Reed Cowan’s documentary 8: The Mormon Proposition examines the history of the religion’s anti-gay activities and the tactics that the church used. Activist Fred Karger is featured, explaining how he came to possess high-level sensitive documents, internal memos from the Mormon leadership that show, step by step, how the Mormon church sought to manipulate the political process while remaining behind the scenes. After Hawaiian voters added language to the state’s constitution that effectively singled out and denied legal equality to gay and lesbian families, the church’s attention shifted to California–long before marriage equality became, briefly, a reality there.
When California gay and lesbian couples started marrying, the Mormons among them faced rage and shunning from their families, but their men at the top ranks of their faith had bigger plans that extended well beyond matters of doctrinal purity for the church’s membership; with those plans in place–and an obedient membership standing by to pour immense sums of money into California from around the nation–the church was able, in a short time, to demonize gays, panic voters, and strip marriage rights from couples of all faiths, and no faith.
The process of calculation and manipulation the Mormon leadership engaged in didn’t just involve the fabrication of alarming–but false–claims about marriage equality destroying religious freedom and turning children gay; interviewees in The Mormon Proposition recount how Mormon leaders visited families belonging to the faith and announced how much those families were expected to pony up for the battle in California. The threat implicit in those visits was that families that didn’t pull out their checkbooks and fork over the sum demanded of them would face banishment from the church–in effect, exile not just from the faith, but from the ranks of the faithful as well, a loss of family and friends. Families lost their savings, the film tells us, and drained their childrens’ college accounts, all in order to yank existing rights out of the hands of people who, by and large, did not belong to their church and had no stake in the afterlife in which we’re told Mormons believe: a realm where spirit-men marry multiple wives and populate entire planets with limitless ranks of spirit-children.
A bit of Cowan’s film leaked last year, when footage of an interview with anti-gay Utah state senator Chris Buttars hit the headlines. Buttars compared gays to terrorists and called them “the biggest threat going down” to America’s national security. That episode has become part of the film itself, along with the aftermath–Utah’s state lawmakers closing ranks around Buttars and praising him as “a stalwart” with whom many of those legislators agreed.
But the documentary looks beyond the immediate effects of the vote on Proposition 8, the anti-gay ballot initiative that was narrowly approved by California voters in November of 2008 and that rescinded the existing rights of a minority at the majority’s behest. The fight was nasty–and involved the exploitation, in commercials, of other people’s children, a shocking twist that horrified California parents–but it’s only a glimpse at what Mormons are willing to do–and have done–to gays. Cowan delves deeper and deeper into the corrosive realm of Mormonism’s anti-gay lore and politics, uncovering a trail of broken lives, homeless youths, and teen suicide: the legacy of a faith that has, we are told by a weeping victim, tortured and sexually assaulted gays by strapping them naked to chairs and shocking their genitals while showing them pictures of naked men. (And that’s an improvement over the old-school Mormon method of dealing with gays; according to this film, they used to lobotomize Mormon queers.) The rage and anguish the viewer might feel reaches a crescendo when one homeless youth, shown sharing a run-down dwelling and a filthy mattress with several others, proclaims matter-of-factly that, “There is no hope” for gay Mormon kids.
This documentary answers crucial questions: why and how can a church so blatantly intrude on the democratic process and still maintain its tax-exempt status, thereby making anyone who pays taxes complicit in faith-based bigotry? What motivates Mormons to assault gays in all the ways–physical, emotional, psychological, legislative, social–that they do? Why did Evangelicals and Catholics join forces with Mormons to subvert the ballot initiative process and, for the first time in our nation’s history, strip existing rights from a minority at the ballot box?
But in answering those questions, 8: The Mormon Proposition also serves as a record of vitriol and hatred so potent and so searing that after seeing the film, I wanted to vomit. That’s surely the intention behind the documentary: it uses all the rhetorical tricks of its genre to drive its message home in as forceful a way as possible, and in that respect the film feels like propaganda. But the documented facts in the film speak for themselves, and point to terrifying, and tragic, conclusions.
The Mormon Proposition tries to hand its audience an upbeat ending, but after last fall’s sequel to the California vote–the squashing of marriage equality in Maine, and the unholy national crusade against gay and lesbian families mounted by the National Organization for Marriage, an anti-gay group with deep, close ties to the Mormon church (Karger says that NOM is a “front” organization for the church’s activities), the film’s hopeful notes sound hollow. The Mormon leadership, including men who claim to speak personally to Jesus, view their church’s faithful as an “army” poised to do their bidding, and see GLBT Americans, and their families, as the enemy.
Mormons from across the country have proven themselves willing to follow their marching orders, to the detriment of their own children–a terrible irony for a faith so concerned about the sanctity of family. The extremes to which the Mormons (together with their Catholic and Evangelical allies) have gone, and may yet take us, will surely lead–as one interviewee laments–to still more sorrow and loss all around, and all in the name of righteousness.
Kilian Melloy reviews media, conducts interviews, and writes commentary for EDGEBoston, where he also serves as Assistant Arts Editor.