For a while I was complaining that the mainstream media hadn’t really covered how the clash over same-sex marriage affected religious groups. So in that regard, I’m pleased to see this story by the Washington Post‘s Karl Vick about how some supporters of same-sex marriage are engaged in, to put it in the most charitable way I can, a public relations campaign against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The story, headlined “‘The Mormons are Coming!’” has some major-league weaknesses, however:
As more states take up the debate on same-sex marriage, some advocates of legalization are taking a very specific lesson from California, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints dominated both fundraising and door-knocking to pass a ballot initiative that barred such unions.
With the battle moving east, some advocates are shouting that fact in the streets, calculating that on an issue that eventually comes down to comfort levels, more people harbor apprehensions about Mormons than about homosexuality.
That’s the lede. While I think the notion that the issue of redefining marriage to encompass same-sex unions comes down to “comfort levels” is idiotic, I recognize that some people think that. Some folks believe that opposition to same-sex marriage can be attributed to nothing more than fear and homophobia. No matter how many majorities clearly state they’re opposed to it, the media rarely ask them why — they just chalk it up to people being, at worst, bigots or, at best, sheltered and not knowing any gay people. It’s the argument stated by Harvey Milk in Milk — if people just knew more gay people, it would change their political views. It’s a condescending notion. So again, while I realize that some people believe this issue comes down to comfort levels, usually those people are on one side of the issue. To state that this issue definitively comes down to comfort levels is really beyond the scope of a journalist’s vocation.
Anyway, the story looks at an ad campaign being run by some proponents of same-sex marriage:
“The Mormons are coming! The Mormons are coming!” warned ads placed on newspaper Web sites in three Eastern states last month. The ad was rejected by sites in three other states, including Maine, where the Kennebec Journal informed Californians Against Hate that the copy “borders on insulting and denigrating a whole set of people based on their religion.”
“I’m not intending it to harm the religion. I think they do wonderful things. Nicest people,” said Fred Karger, a former Republican campaign consultant who established Californians Against Hate. “My single goal is to get them out of the same-sex marriage business and back to helping hurricane victims.”
The strategy carries risks for a movement grounded in the concept of tolerance. But the demographics tempt proponents of same-sex marriage: Mormons account for just 2 percent of the U.S. population, and they are scarce outside the West. Nearly eight in 10 Americans personally know or work with a gay person, according to a recent Newsweek survey. Only 48 percent, meanwhile, know a Mormon, according to a Pew Research Center poll.
The story goes on to take the campaign seriously, and discusses how people view Mormons. So, for instance, a Mormon author found that for every American who expressed a strong liking for Mormons, four expressed a strong dislike. Whether or not that’s true, I’m surprised the story doesn’t dig a heck of a lot deeper.
I mean, it’s possible that people view Mormons negatively and still have a huge problem with a campaign trying to control what they teach or do. Not to get all Martin Niemoller on the topic, but people with different religious views might see the writing on the wall with ad campaigns such as this. They might see that religious opposition to same-sex marriage (and any living out of that opposition in the public square) is considered incompatible with gay rights.
I’m extremely surprised that in the story we don’t hear from anyone pointing out that going after Mormons for their opposition to same-sex marriage might backfire big time, to put it mildly. There’s also no discussion of some of the anti-Mormon protests and vandalism that erupted following California’s Proposition 8 vote. Far from it. The only comment dealing with the issue comes in the kicker:
“Is it fruitful to use the Mormon bogey?” said Mark Silk, a professor of religion and public life at Trinity College in Connecticut. “My sense is that there aren’t great risks to it. Once a religious institution is going to inject itself into a public fight, which the LDS did in a straight-up way, then I think people are prepared to say, ‘Well, okay, you’re on that side and we’re against you.’”
Again, I bet there are quite a few people who look at the anti-Mormon rhetoric and begin wondering about how tolerant some gay activists are.
The story has some interesting discussion of Mormon organization and how that played out in Proposition 8. But check out this section:
The proponents’ strategy is grounded in a stubborn reality: While the number of states legalizing same-sex marriage is slowly increasing — Maine recently became the fifth — in every case the agent of change was either a court or a legislature. Voters have rejected the idea wherever it has appeared on a ballot.
The election results track public opinion nationwide. Polls consistently show that while a majority of Americans support some legal recognition of gay unions, more want to keep marriage reserved for a man and a woman.
The disparity is narrow and shrinking, however, and in California, Mormons may well have made the difference on Proposition 8, which nullified a decision by the state Supreme Court that legalized same-sex marriage.
While the number of states legalizing same-sex marriage is slowly increasing, so is the number of states banning it. California, Arizona and Florida were the last three — bringing the total to some 30 — states to ban it. They did so just this past November.
And is the disparity narrow and shrinking? What about the Gallup poll that came out earlier this week showing that Americans are not becoming more accepting of same-sex unions? In May 2007, 53 percent opposed same-sex marriage and now 57 percent oppose. Two years ago, 46 percent supported same-sex marriage and now only 40 percent do according to the poll.
The media really like to run with the narrative that same-sex marriage is inevitable. They have repeated it incessantly. But is it true? Take, even, the oft-repeated statistics about how young people support same-sex marriage while older people oppose it. That is definitely true. But should we assume that attitudes don’t change over time? It reminds me of these surveys showing that college students don’t go to church as frequently as older adults do. The thing is that college church attendance has very little to do with later church attendance. For decades we’ve seen that college students drop off and then rebound in church attendance.
Looking back at the Gallup poll, shouldn’t the media be exploring something about why attitudes have changed, according to the poll? Are people looking at the lack of violence following, for instance, an Iowa Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage compared with the response in California to how Prop. 8 turned out? I don’t know . . . but it’s odd that a story about an anti-Mormon ad campaign (an ad campaign literally called “The Mormons are Coming!”) wouldn’t even consider that this might backfire big time.
I also find it fascinating that this entire story aims to support the notion that Americans will be less comfortable with Mormons than gays (if forced, somehow, to choose). We learn all sorts of things about the Mormon church in this story — much of it very fairly written. But we never explore whether it’s true that the more people know about gay activists, the more comfortable they’ll be with them.
Take, for instance, the woman who organized California’s “Meet in the Middle for Equality” march held Saturday in Fresno. Her name is Robin McGehee and she seems by all accounts to be a very nice and capable woman. Here’s an absolutely fawning profile of her in the San Francisco Chronicle from last fall. I sure hope it was written by her mother — it’s just that biased. Anyway, she is one of four partners in the raising of her children — two partnered women and two partnered men. I’m sure that what I’m about to write is considered shocking inside the Washington Post . . . but I bet quite a few people in America think that such a family arrangement is less than ideal. They might even feel more, dare I say, “comfortable” with the Mormon family next door (not that I, again, think this should matter regarding marriage policy). But we never really see any hard-hitting looks at why society considers families led by two parents of opposite sex to be best for children. It’s almost considered impolitic to discuss this reality.
There’s much more to the Washington Post story and I encourage you to check it out. What do you think? Is it fair? Does it rub you the wrong way? What else is missing from this story?
Photo via Evan Jacobs on Flickr.