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The Storm Over the Mormons
By DAVID VAN BIEMA Monday, Jun. 22, 2009
Oakland California Temple
Richard Renaldi for TIME
Last November, Jay Pimentel began hearing that people in his neighborhood were receiving letters about him. Pimentel lives in Alameda, Calif., a small, liberal-leaning community hanging off Oakland into the San Francisco Bay. Pimentel, who is a Mormon, had supported Proposition 8, the ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage. And that made him a target. "Dear Neighbor," the letter began, "Our neighbors, Colleen and Jay Pimentel" — and it gave their address — "contributed $1,500.00 to the Yes on Proposition 8 campaign. NEIGHBORS SHOULD BE AWARE OF THEIR NEIGHBORS' CHOICES." The note accused the Pimentels of "obsessing about same-sex marriage." It listed a variety of local causes that recipients should support — "unlike the Pimentels."
Pimentel, a lawyer and a lay leader in the small Mormon congregation in Alameda, is markedly even-keeled. Yet the poison-pen note still steams him, even though in May the California Supreme Court validated Prop 8 as constitutional. He is bothered less by the revelation of his monetary contribution, which he stands by, than the fact that the letter's author didn't bother to find out that every other Saturday for 15 years, he or someone else from Alameda's 184-member Mormon ward has delivered a truckload of hot meals to the Midway Shelter for Abused and Homeless Women and Children — one of the organizations the Pimentels allegedly wouldn't support. "The church does a lot of things in the community we don't issue press releases about," he says. "And when people criticize us, we often just take it on the chin. I guess you could say I'm not satisfied with the way we're seen." (See pictures from inside a Mormon ward.)
Across the country, that's the dilemma facing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. With 13 million members worldwide (by its own count), the LDS is the fourth largest church in the country, the richest per capita and one of the fastest-growing abroad. The body has become a mainstream force, counting among its flock political heavyweights like former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid, businesspeople like the Marriotts and entertainers like Glenn Beck and Twilight novelist Stephenie Meyer. The passage of Prop 8 was the church's latest display of its power: individual Mormons contributed half of the proposition's $40 million war chest despite constituting only 2% of California's population. LDS spokesman Michael Otterson says, "This is a moment of emergence." (See pictures of Stephenie Meyer's career.)
But that emergence has its costs. Even as Mormons have become more prominent, they have struggled to overcome lingering prejudices and misrepresentations about the sources of their beliefs. Polls suggest that up to half of Americans would be uncomfortable with a Mormon President. And though the Prop 8 victory was a high-water mark for Mormon political advocacy, it also sparked a vicious backlash from gay-rights activists, some of whom accused Mormons of bigotry and blind religious obedience.
The LDS regards such charges as the product of ignorance. It sees itself as primarily apolitical; on issues on which it has taken a stand, the church's positions have been roughly consistent with other conservative faiths. But Mormon activism, when it occurs, does differ from the American norm in significant ways, because of both the dominating role played by LDS President and Prophet Thomas Monson and the church's remarkable electoral cohesion. After the California Supreme Court's ruling to uphold Prop 8, gay-rights groups announced their intent to return same-sex marriage to the California ballot in 2010, almost challenging the Mormons to respond. By championing the California traditional-marriage initiative so forcefully and successfully the first time, the Mormon church has stepped onto America's next big cultural battleground. But in figuring out if it should pick up the gauntlet again, the Mormons, who feel they have so much else to offer, must consider whether the issue is becoming a referendum on Mormonism itself.
What Mormons Believe
"Our Message for the World," says M. Russell Ballard Jr., one of the 14 apostles just under Monson, "is that we are His children, we lived with Him before we came here ... we're striving to keep His commandments so that when we die we can be entitled to receive all the blessings that the Heavenly Father has for His children." Ballard adds emphatically, "People like to make it complex. But it's really pretty simple."
Actually, it's pretty complex. Beyond some (extremely) colorful details, there are two radical Mormon theological deviations from conventional Christianity, both of which have at least some bearing on the gay-marriage battle. The first is an expansion of the drama of salvation. In creedal Christianity, Jesus' divinity, incarnation, teachings, death and resurrection are the entire point. Mormons, too, believe in Christ as Saviour and model and are as committed as any other Christians to his emulation. But they also believe we existed prenatally as God's "spirit children," that our earthly life is an interlude for learning and testing and that we continue developing after death. The best Mormons may become in the afterlife parents to their own batch of spirit children. "As Man is, God once was; as God is, Man may become," goes the couplet by the fifth Mormon President, Lorenzo Snow. This unusual scheme underlies Mormon sunniness, industriousness and charity. Says Jana Riess, a comparative-religions expert who converted to Mormonism and is a co-author of Mormonism for Dummies: "There's no other Christian theology as beautifully open to human beings' eternal potential." (See people finding God on YouTube.)
Gays constitute a notable exception. Some Mormons have a conventional view of homosexuality as sin. But their marriage preference has an additional aspect. The return to God is accomplished by heterosexually founded families, not individuals, and only as a partner in a procreative relationship can a soul eventually create spirit children. "I've had personal experience with gay people, and I weep with them," says official LDS historian Marlin Jensen, but the "context for our being so dogged about preserving the family is that Mormons believe that God is their father and that they have a heavenly mother and that eventually their destiny is to become like that." The alienation felt by gay Mormons was highlighted in 2000, when one of them, 32-year-old Stuart Matis, committed suicide on the steps of the Los Altos, Calif., church headquarters.
The second politically controversial Mormon teaching is the belief in a living, breathing Prophet — in Salt Lake City. Prophets have even more authority than Popes do in Catholicism; among other things, they are able to add to Scripture. Because they make key decisions with their apostles, the model is oligarchic rather than absolute, but it still vests extraordinary influence in Monson, his two counselors and his apostles, who transmit orders downward through the Salt Lake City — based general authorities, regional stake presidents and local pastors called bishops. (See pictures of spiritual healing around the world.)
Mormons bristle at the notion of "blind obedience" to the Prophet. The faith makes much of free will, and each believer divines his path privately with the help of reason, prayer and the Holy Spirit. But most often, the outcome of that process affirms the Prophet's instructions. The combination of free-will rhetoric and de facto obedience produces what Stephen Carter, editor of the independent Mormon magazine Sunstone, calls "people who are psychologically healthy, have a good sense of direction and who are for the most part ready to follow orders."
The Organized Mormon
Richard and Joan Ostling, authors of Mormon America, calculated that pious Mormons devote an astonishing 20 hours a week to church-related activities, an expectation Richard Ostling says exists in "no other big denomination." Constant interaction through Bible study, family home evenings, Mormon scout troops and other community-building activities yield a practiced, seamless unity more common to much smaller insular groups like the Amish and ultra-Orthodox Jews.
The biggest manifestation of that unity is one of America's largest private welfare networks, a charitable wonder called the Bishop's Storehouse system that kept thousands of LDS members off the dole during the Great Depression (and is humming again). In the past, the only knock against the church's largesse was that it aided mostly Mormons: the Ostlings write that in the 14 years ending in 1997, the LDS spent a paltry $30.7 million in cash on non-Mormon humanitarian aid. But that changed in the late '90s, and humanitarian expenditures in 2008 alone topped $110 million (including noncash donations). "We're there when the tornadoes hit and hurricanes hit and the volcanoes explode," says Ballard. Notes Marian Sylvestre of the Bay Area Red Cross, which developed a fruitful cooperation with Pimentel: "They're quiet soldiers with plenty of resources."
It's precisely those resources, though, that have drawn the LDS into the eye of the country's biggest cultural tempest. The church embraced church-state separation in the 1800s and explicitly recognizes the right of independent-minded officeholders like Romney and Reid to make their own calls. Retail politics, however, is different. Although Salt Lake City officially rejects wading in on most issues, it makes a large exception: matters of morals, with an emphasis on gender debates. Mormon activists helped halt the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and '80s and gay marriage in Hawaii (1998) and California (2000). (Read "What Romney Belives.")
Prop 8 constituted a kind of perfect political storm of theology, demographics and organization. At the Alameda Meeting House last June (as at other Mormon churches statewide), a letter from Monson and his counselors advised believers to "do all you can to support the proposed constitutional amendment by donating of your means and time." A string of Protect Marriage coalition meetings followed. They never occurred on LDS property, but they were overwhelmingly Mormon in attendance and sought Mormon support. Alaina Stewart, a church member, was asked to employ a list of "who in the ward we thought could contribute. We'd call and say, 'We're asking you to give such and such an amount,'" she says.
Some declined. A senior church official had promised Mormons who disagreed on Prop 8 that "we love them and bear them no ill will." This played well in Alameda, where many LDS members ferry their children to classmates' birthday parties thrown by same-sex parents. Stewart says she intended from the start to vote yes. But she adds, "I can certainly understand why members of the gay community wanted to receive this rite. I think there were ward members on the fence, thinking, Why not give them marriage?"
But the general authorities in Salt Lake City increased the pressure. A broadcast to all churches outlined the pro-8 ground campaign, with titles like "Thirty People in Each Ward" and "More than Four Hours per Week." Craig Teuscher, the Alameda ward's regional stake president, reiterated in church the seriousness of Monson's request to congregants.
The new push for the proposition had a rational side: the church claimed that the legalization of gay marriage would threaten its tax-exempt status if it refused to perform gay nuptials. (Most legal scholars disagree.) But belief in Monson's supernatural connection also played a big role. Says Stewart: "The Prophet's telling us to stand up. When he speaks, you're realizing that there may be things that I don't see." Asks Gayle Teuscher, the stake president's wife: "If I believe that the Prophet is a true prophet of God and disregard his counsel, what does that say about my belief in God?" Sunstone's Carter says most Mormons who explained their stance for his publication "said, 'The Prophet has a longer view than we do' or 'It was revealed to me.'" Clark Pingree, a Bay Area Mormon gay activist, says that of the various Mormon pro-8 rationales, the Prophet-made-me-do-it line was "the most infuriating, because people say, 'I'm showing my faith by voting against what I know in my heart.' It's a force field you will never penetrate."
Politics — or Persecution?
Proposition 8 won by less than 5% of the vote. Individual Mormons contributed $20 million of its $40 million war chest. Asked whether the belief in prophecy, transmuted into funding and activism, could have been decisive, David Campbell, a University of Notre Dame political scientist (and a Mormon) who has studied LDS political activity, says, "I think that's arguable, in the positive sense of the word." Many Alameda congregants who had initially refused Stewart's fundraising efforts changed their mind; she exceeded her goals. Mormons made calls, placed flyers and planted lawn signs. They thought they were being good citizens.
That has made the aftermath of Prop 8 all the more disturbing to them. Furious gay-rights activists targeted the church, picketing temples in several states. A prominent Mormon Sacramento musical-theater director was hounded from his job. Tom Hanks declared the Mormons "un-American." (He later apologized.) Alameda Mormons like Pimentel read fire-breathing quotes in the San Francisco Chronicle and fielded "Dear Neighbor" notes.
Says Stewart: "I hear they threw bags of urine at a temple. If we had lost, it never would have occurred to me to react that way." Three months after the election, she says, "I don't feel quite the same way about our community." She felt frozen out of conversations among other parents. "You think, This will go away. But it doesn't seem to. I think about my kids in school," she says. "I want them to be accepted, to feel it's O.K. to be different." Of course, this is precisely the sentiment motivating the gay-marriage movement. (See pictures of the gay rights movement.)
But as a Mormon concern, it long predates Prop 8. For a century, the Mormon church had a rocky and sometimes bloody relationship with American culture at large; persecution by "gentiles" became key to LDS self-understanding. But thanks to their industry, optimism and civic-mindedness, many Mormons have found their place in the American fabric. Ballard says, "We'd like to be seen as mainstream — if that means being part of the national conversation about issues of morality and having our members respected as contributing members of society. But we have to hang on to what's true, regardless of where society goes." He adds, "We've never felt that we were being more understood or more appreciated, at least in my 30 years as a general authority." Ballard helped supervise an outreach program during the heightened "Mormon Moment" of the Romney campaign as apostles fanned out to visit media editorial boards. However, he contends that the "real power" determining public perception of his faith is "when a member of the church meets his neighbor, and the neighbor sees that he has objectives to his life and is finding happiness in his field. That's starting to happen all over." (See pictures of Mitt Romney on the campaign trail.)
Not everyone is as upbeat. Christopher Bigelow, a publisher and satirist (he edited the Sugar Beet, a kind of LDS Onion), says, "In the 20th century, we were allowed to grow and even gain a measure of respect." But Bigelow sees that as a mere "doughnut hole" in a darker dynamic. Gay marriage, he says, belongs to a class of behaviors increasingly tolerated in the broader society that the church must nonetheless oppose. He dips into an old but potent vocabulary: "As civilization keeps moving from standards we think God wants people to hold, it's inevitable that we expect persecution." Back in Alameda, Stewart's husband Brad says about Prop 8, "I hope I never have to do it again," but adds grimly, "I expect that I will."
The Dilemma of Deployment
The Church has not decided on its future role in the gay-marriage debate. The heat surrounding Prop 8 may die down by next year. "Talking about what may or may not happen in 2010 would be speculation, and I wouldn't want to do that," says Apostle Quentin Cook. The LDS abstained from same-sex-marriage battles in Iowa and New England. But avoiding a California rematch may be tougher. Notre Dame's Campbell says, "If it appeared that the church sat out next time because it was criticized this time, there might be a credibility question." But given a national trend toward supporting gay marriage, he asks, "Does the church want the public to identify it primarily as a political body opposing an issue that comes back again and again?"
Jay Pimentel, for one, will be spared that profoundly tricky question — for now. Shortly after the "Dear Neighbor" letter, Salt Lake City tapped him to lead all missionary activity in eastern Germany. The move entails sacrifices; he'll be leaving his job and uprooting an adult son with special needs. But it will put him in a field where the LDS has concerns — its spectacular international growth has begun to plateau — and incidentally remove him from any 2010 proposition battle.
Is he relieved? "I might feel relief," he says finally. "Or I might feel a kind of longing, a desire to be there." Then Pimentel expresses an archetypal LDS sentiment: "I like to help where I can be helpful."