Maryland activists working to overturn same-sex marriage have had to get used to one surprising absence from their religious coalition: Mormons.
A huge amount of Mormon money and foot soldiers and the support of church leadership were credited with an epic win for traditional marriage in 2008 when California voters approved Proposition 8, which said that only marriage between a man and woman would be recognized in the state. And the D.C. region has one of the largest communities of Mormons outside the West.
But Mormon leaders in Maryland have been silent on the ballot measure to affirm or toss the state’s new same-sex marriage law. Activists in other states voting next month on the issue (Maine, Minnesota and Washington) say they see the same thing. The dramatic turnaround from 2008 reflects the tightrope the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is walking as it tries to maintain a generally apolitical church culture while in the global spotlight of a presidential campaign.
“It’s surprising they haven’t been in the lead on this,” said Mike McManus, head of the Potomac-based Marriage Savers marriage counseling and advocacy group and an organizer for Question 6, the November ballot measure that requires voter approval of the state’s new same-sex marriage law.
Some Mormons are thrilled to see the church publicly stay out of politics, particularly on an issue that has such strong partisan overtones. Mormon scripture calls it “unjust” to mingle “religious influence with civil government,” and politics is generally a taboo topic in church. Which is why Mormon leaders’ decision to become involved in campaigns in California and, earlier, Hawaii, was deeply divisive.
Most Mormons can name measures on which church leaders have taken clear public positions: same-sex marriage in California in 2008, a missile defense system in the 1980s, the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s — all against.
But experts and even church officials say Mormon officials are being especially cautious this year because of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign and the danger of their strongly evangelical faith becoming too closely associated with one party.
This year, for the first time in decades, church officials didn’t meet at the start of the legislative session with Utah state lawmakers.
“It’s the political climate we’re in. There was just too much over-interpreting,” said Michael Otterson, church spokesman.
Some experts say Mormonism is in a period of flux when it comes to mixing politics and faith. The community’s identity was shaped by discrimination, including in the late 1800s, when measures aimed at Mormons were passed barring polygamists from voting or holding elected office. Mormonism is also very hierarchical, and ordinary Mormons and local church leaders are discouraged from speaking as individuals. Local clergy don’t take public positions; only the church’s headquarters in Salt Lake City does. Several Mormons contacted for this story for their personal view referred a reporter to spokespeople.
Mormonism is also spreading overseas, and leaders are concerned about taking positions on issues that may seem parochial.
“I think there has been a sense that the church needs to rise above this sort of thing,” said Matthew Bowman, a Mormon and a historian of American religion at Hampden-Sydney College.
Sensitivities were clear right away in Maryland, when in March two Mormon women working to gather petition signatures sought volunteers on an unofficial church e-mail group list for a congregation in Chevy Chase. The posting was quickly taken down, and the congregation had a meeting about proper use of the e-mail group and not using it for political outreach.
Neither woman responded to requests for comment.
“A lot of people signed up with them, but a lot of people were taken aback,” said David Baker, a gay member of the congregation who is working to oppose the measure.
Baker and other advocates for same-sex marriage are glad that the church in 2012 is taking such a different tack than it did the last year there were a slew of measures on the ballot.
California, Otterson said, was an exception because it is such a large “bellwether” state and because of its large Mormon population. But the cost to the church was real in terms of the controversy generated. Protesters set up camp outside Mormon temples. Some temples were sent fake anthrax. Lists of donors were made public, and Mormon businesses were picketed. Prominent Mormon and former Olympian Peter Vidmar had to step down from a prominent position with the 2012 Olympics after it came out that he had donated to the campaign for Proposition 8.
The silence is not true on the other side. This year has been a landmark one for gay and lesbian Mormons, in good part because of gay-rights initiatives in a number of states and several years of publicity about their faith that say encouraged them to be more open. For the first time, there were Mormon contingents in gay pride parades in cities across the country this year, and advocates in the states where there are same-sex ballot measures said they feel they can speak out without being sanctioned by local church leaders.
But even from supporters of same-sex marriage, there are some mixed feelings about the church’s withdrawal from the public arena.
Spencer Clark, 29, of Takoma Park is head of his congregation’s male auxiliary and leader of the national Mormons for Marriage Equality. He wonders how Mormons can claim to be led by a prophet who receives revelation from God and yet be wary of speaking up on policy issues.
“I think there is relief and disappointment in the Mormon community that we don’t get involved politically in many issues of the day,” he said.