Stephen Stromberg on Mormons' Political Unease

In a rally at the California state capitol last week, supporters of same-sex marriage protest the passage of Proposition 8.
In a rally at the California state capitol last week, supporters of same-sex marriage protest the passage of Proposition 8. (By Max Whittaker -- Getty Images)
By Stephen Stromberg
Monday, November 24, 2008

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is becoming a potent political force. Last year's story was that Mormons had risen to some of the highest offices in America -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid belongs to the church, as does former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. This year's headline is that, with the encouragement of their religious leaders, Mormons gave loads of money and man-hours to pass Proposition 8 in California, which banned same-sex marriage in the state. Indeed, they were probably the most organized and consequential force behind the measure's passage. But in the face of post-election protests outside its temples, the church doesn't seem to want to take much credit.

Michael Otterson, a church spokesman, recently told the Associated Press that he was "puzzled" by the protesters' targeting of Mormons. "This was a very broad-based coalition that defended traditional marriage in a free and democratic election," he said. "It's a little disturbing to see these protesters singling out the Mormon Church."

There are Mormons who fought hard against the measure, drawing attention to the extent of Mormon involvement by outing fellow members on donor lists. There are Mormons so upset they're thinking of renouncing their church membership as well as Mormons who wholeheartedly supported the initiative. And then there are those who gave money out of obedience to their leaders, without much thought to the policy it was being used to support. Regardless of where they fall on this spectrum, many probably feel a bit like Otterson: uneasy with all the attention.

It's unusual for an institution to shrink from responsibility for a victory at the ballot box. But being Mormon isn't quite like being, say, Southern Baptist. The highly centralized LDS church makes a lot of Americans nervous, and it has done so since Joseph Smith founded the movement, which was driven out of state after state before settling in the Salt Lake Valley. Where some see an efficient religious organization that requires unusual devotion from its members, others see conspiracy, even cult.

It's an impression that has its roots in, among other things, the church's practice of polygamy in the 19th century, and it has been self-reinforcing since. Non-Mormons see the church as outside the mainstream; Mormons feel under attack, which fosters a tight communalism within their congregations, and they try to avoid confrontation. Hence Otterson doing his best to play down the role church members had in the victory of Proposition 8 in the face of throngs demonstrating in front of temples.

This is new and awkward territory for many Mormons. Members of a virulent anti-Mormon fringe have protested at LDS churches and temples for years. The church, meanwhile, has always had a difficult relationship with gay men and lesbians. But now it has drawn the focused attention of that large, vocal and organized segment of America, with which huge swaths of the country sympathize. Boycotts of some Mormon-owned businesses are underway. One Californian spelled out an obscene insult to Mormons in large, block letters on his hillside balcony.

This attention presents the church and its members with some big decisions. They have gotten a taste, sweet and bitter, of what this remarkable organization of souls can do -- and the reactions it can provoke -- in the rough world of American politics. After Proposition 8's passage, the church's reputation will likely be on the upswing among religious conservatives, some of whom have typically been the most ardent anti-Mormons. For many of these people, the most important vote Nov. 4 was on Proposition 8, not Barack Obama.

The church, which can easily mobilize its members with a word from Salt Lake, can now become a prominent player in the culture wars. There will no doubt be more battles over gay marriage in the states. Will the church ask Mormons to send in more checks? And will they respond as enthusiastically the next time? One thing is clear: If the church decides to continue flexing its political muscle, it cannot expect to escape criticism, some of it pretty harsh.

Even if it chooses the other course -- shrinking away from the political scene, as it has after other forays into politics -- the anger over Proposition 8 will probably smolder for some time. If Mitt Romney runs for president again, Americans will address, with renewed passion, the question of whether he would be a puppet of Salt Lake City in the Oval Office. And with all the old narratives about Mormons floating around -- that they are secretive, rich, excessively traditional and theologically odd -- it will be hard for the church to stay comfortably out of the political spotlight.

Stephen Stromberg writes for The Economist in its Washington bureau.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company