The LDS Church: From Proposition 8 to Religious Freedom
Editors' Note: This article is part of a Public Square conversation on Political Engagement. Read other perspectives here.
The 2008 Proposition 8 campaign in California represented a high-water mark for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—not since the 1970s had the Church become so publicly engaged with a politicized issue. Lower-profile efforts had been (and continue to be) standard operating procedure, and so the mobilization of Church members' time and money through letters read over the pulpit in sacrament meetings (i.e., the main Sunday worship meeting) was a departure from the norm. (The pro-Proposition 8 coalition also included Catholics, whose church spearheaded the effort, Protestants, Muslims, Jewish groups, and Evangelicals.)
The Church and its members received painful bruises from that episode, even though Proposition 8 passed by well over half a million votes. But the lessons the Church learned thereby are valuable, and will inform efforts under the divine mandate to "lift up your voice as with the sound of a trump, both long and loud, and cry repentance unto a crooked and perverse generation, preparing the way of the Lord for his second coming" (Doctrine and Covenants34:6). Given that mandate, the Church will always remain active on issues pertaining to the spiritual wellbeing of God's sons and daughters—even if these issues become politicized—for the Lord will hold the Church accountable for doing so. Nevertheless, here is an inventory of what lessons this observer believes were acquired from this experience.
First, since we have not seen similar public campaigns by the LDS Church in other states where same-sex marriage was subsequently put to a popular vote (Maine and Maryland in 2012), it is clear the Church has decided the high-profile approach was counterproductive. After all, Christ's injunction is to be "wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove" (Matthew 10:16), not "harmless as a dove and dumb as a rock." Those on the Lord's errand should strive to be as effective as possible, and that may entail making different choices from the Lord's "diversity of operations" (Doctrine and Covenants46:16).
Second, the Church appears to have made a strategic decision that there is a more important battle to be won than those fought over a single issue such as same-sex marriage. That is the battle for religious freedom—the right not to be punished by the state for teachings and practices that circumscribe acceptable behavior beyond that recognized in law. This does not mean that the Church will cease all efforts on those single issues; that would be inconsistent with its mandate to stand for truth. However, the very foundation upon which one stands for truth—the right to speak freely and the right to free exercise of religion—is clearly seen by the Church as being in jeopardy. This is why the Church has just launched a major new initiative on religious freedom, which includes videos, a Facebook page, and in-depth commentaries, among other resources.
The Church perceives, rightly in this observer's view, that religious freedom is an issue around which a broad consensus can still be built within American society. While religious Americans may no longer much care about the married lesbian couple in their subdivision, they still care whether they and the churches they attend will be punished for exhorting others not to follow that path. They rightly suspect that the day may come when calling something a "sin" or even "wrong" will be equated with "hate speech" under future legal interpretation.
Valerie M. Hudson is Professor and George H.W. Bush Chair in the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. In 2009, Foreign Policy named her one of the top 100 Most Influential Global Thinkers. Her published books include Bare Branches and Sex and World Peace.