8: The Mormon Proposition: Two Movies in One
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Director Reed Cowan’s film 8: The Mormon Proposition is really two movies in one: a story of the involvement of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the campaign to pass California’s initiative banning same-sex marriage in November 2008, and a grim tale of how rough the Mormons are on their own Queer people, especially Queer youth, who are frequently disowned by their families and left to fend for themselves on the streets. The two movies —which each take up roughly half of the film’s total 80-minute running time — don’t mesh together all that well, and more creative editing might have bridged the gap between them and made this film even more powerful than it is, but as it stands this film is an indictment not only of one church but of the entire religious mind-set that emphasizes blind faith and obedience and denies the importance of individuality and freedom of thought.
Cowan knows first-hand whereof he is speaking. Like one of his film’s major protagonists — Gay ex-Mormon Tyler Barrick, whose parents told him point-blank when he called them long distance from the San Francisco City Hall where he was about to marry his partner that they saw only shame, not joy, in what he was about to do — Cowan grew up Mormon, Indeed, he was born and raised in Utah, which has been Mormon Central ever since the faith, driven out of New York, Illinois and Missouri in the 1840’s for their own peculiar beliefs about marriage, settled there in the 1850’s. Originally he had set out to make the film that dominates the second half of 8: The Mormon Proposition — a heart-rending documentary about Mormon youth living on the streets of Salt Lake City and the inflexible condemnation and anti-Queer hatred that have become pillars of the Mormon faith as preached by a church leadership whom Mormons believe to be in direct communication with God.
Midway through his project, however, Cowan’s focus shifted as the California Supreme Court ruled in May 2008 that same-sex couples had an equal right to marry under the California state constitution. The Mormons and other religious opponents of marriage equality had already mobilized a signature drive to amend the California constitution to bar legal recognition of any sort of marriage other than one man and one woman — which, ironically, would have put the polygamous forebears of many latter-day Latter-Day Saints beyond the pale. They had already worked out the strategy for reversing court decisions allowing same-sex marriage by initiatives, and had tried it out in response to the first such decision in Hawai’i in 1993.
According to internal Mormon Church memoranda and e-mails leaked by a church whistleblower to Fred Karger, founder and executive director of Californians Against Hate, the Mormon campaign against the Hawai’i decision began with a public opinion survey funded by the church. The survey revealed that the Mormon Church was not particularly popular or well-liked in the state, and therefore the only way to win an anti-marriage initiative was to organize Roman Catholics and other more highly regarded denominations to lead the opposition. They also realized the need for ordinary Hawai’ians to front the campaign and make it appear to be a grass-roots effort. The Mormon leaders realized that they could provide the funding, but in order to succeed they had to let secular activists and leaders from other religions appear to be running the coalition in support of the initiative.
They won a sweeping victory at the ballot box in Hawai’i — where voters reversed their high court’s marriage decision by a 2-to-1 margin — and, though Cowan’s movie doesn’t mention this, initiatives banning same-sex marriage have passed in all 35 U.S. states that have had a chance to vote on them. The memos Karger obtained and Cowan’s other sources reveal that the Mormons practiced the same strategy in California as they had in Hawai’i and elsewhere: set up a coalition to run the Yes on 8 campaign, let other religious leaders and groups (like the Roman Catholic group, the Knights of Columbus — who, unlike the Mormons, were openly identified on the Yes on 8 commercials as having helped to fund them) appear to be leading the campaign, while the Mormons actually provided much of the money. According to the film, $22 million of the total Yes on 8 budget of $39 million came either from the Mormon church itself or from individual Mormons who were urged and, Cowan argues, pressured to donate directly to Yes on 8.
The pressure wasn’t at all subtle, according to Cowan’s interviewees. Mormons, he explained, have a long tradition of blind obedience to the dictates of their ministers. Cowan plays an audio recording of a conference of the Council of 12 Apostles who actually run the Mormon church, emphasizing the importance of defeating same-sex marriage in order to preserve traditional Biblical morality and protect the workings of God’s plans on earth. In a church with a long tradition of mandatory tithing — Mormons are expected to give at least 10 percent of their income to support the church — Cowan and his interviewees describe church officials showing up at the homes of their parishioners telling them, essentially, “Here’s what you earn. Here’s what we think you can contribute to Yes on 8. Here is your checkbook. Write the check.”
8: The Mormon Proposition delivers a strong but incomplete picture of the Proposition 8 campaign. You wouldn’t know from this film (or from “David v. Goliath,” the name of the production company Cowan formed to make it) that the No on 8 campaign actually had just as much money as Yes on 8 — actually a little more ($40 million and change versus Yes on 8’s $39 million and change) — and one reason Proposition 8 passed by a five-percent margin is that the Yes on 8 side utilized their money far more effectively. You also wouldn’t know from this film that, while the Yes on 8 campaign mobilized both Mormons and non-Mormons to go door-to-door, the No on 8 side decided against mounting a grass-roots door-to-door drive and instead ran phone banks as their sole one-on-one outreach to voters. Cowan’s film also doesn’t explain why, when the tactics and arguments the Yes on 8 campaign would use were already familiar to marriage equality supporters from previous elections in other states, the No on 8 side did such a piss-poor job of challenging them.
But Cowan wasn’t interested in making a movie about the relative effectiveness of the campaigns on both sides of Proposition 8. What he was interested in was challenging the whole idea of a church using its money, members and resources both temporal and spiritual to affect the outcome of their election and write their own morality into a state constitution. Critics of the film have suggested that Cowan is denying the right of religious people and institutions to seek to affect political issues and the outcomes of elections at all — which is nonsense. Religious people have as much of a right to campaign in a free society as anybody else; what they don’t — or at least shouldn’t — have is the right to use that to write their own morals into law and thereby discriminate against anybody who doesn’t share them.
Indeed, one could have made a case against Proposition 8 on the ground that a ban on the legal recognition of same-sex marriage discriminates against religions like the United Church of Christ, Friends (Quakers), Unitarian-Universalists and others who believe in marriage equality for same-sex couples and wish to be able to marry their Gay and Lesbian parishioners on the same basis as their heterosexual ones. Contrary to the Yes on 8 propaganda, allowing the legal recognition of same-sex marriage would not have forced churches who opposed it to conduct same-sex weddings — just as the Roman Catholic Church has a legal right to deny church marriage rights to divorced people, even though divorced people can legally marry under civil law. Of all the mistakes the No on 8 campaign made, one of the most serious was its utter failure to engage Queer-supportive ministers and other people of faith as public spokespeople against the initiative — thereby allowing the Mormons and their allies in other churches to create the impression that the entire religious community was united against same-sex marriage and in favor of 8.
The second half of 8: The Mormon Proposition is, in some ways, a better movie than the first. It’s more heart-rending and certainly grimmer and more intense. It’s a systematic attack on the Mormon church for being so relentlessly homophobic that they literally drive young Mormons struggling with their sexual orientation to suicide. One of the film’s most revolting sections is an interview with Bruce Barton, who as a student at Brigham Young University was victimized when he was one of 12 people named by an anonymous source as being homosexual. He was forced to watch pornographic images and drink a vomit-inducing drug in order to be psychologically conditioned away from being Gay — a technique called “aversive therapy” that was actually part of the psychiatric mainstream’s response to homosexuality until the major psychological and psychiatric associations voted in the early 1970’s no longer to regard homosexuality as a mental illness.
Barton said that for his last session he was given a button that administered electric shocks to himself and told to push the button when he saw a sexually explicit image he either strongly hated or strongly liked. He was also told that if he didn’t push the button himself, the people running the “therapy” would push it for him and administer the shock anyway. He doesn’t remember just how long he was forced to endure this torture, but he did say that a number of people on that list of 12 names committed suicide, two of them disappeared completely, and one ended up a psychological basket case with no sex drive at all. The only response from the Mormon church quoted in the film is a statement that they don’t do that sort of thing anymore — and Cowan is a bit unfair to the church by showing some of their anti-Queer actions but not giving the dates when they occurred.
What he does show, however, is grim on its face. Among the footage shown in 8: The Mormon Proposition is grainy black-and-white surveillance video of a Mormon security squad beating up two Gay men whose “crime,” so we’re told, was kissing each other within eyeshot of the main Mormon temple in Salt Lake City. He also takes us inside an encampment for homeless youth in Salt Lake City and lets them — particularly a boyish young man named Miyo, who describes the horrors of his life in a matter-of-fact style that makes them that much more frightening — tell us how they live and how their parents flatly, firmly and coldly rejected them for being Queer … or at least for having homosexual urges, since the Mormon church flatly rejects the idea that sexual orientation is innate and says they offer programs to help people “struggling” with “homosexual feelings” to get over them.
Though one could argue that 8: The Mormon Proposition overstates the importance of the Mormons in getting Proposition 8 on the ballot and passed by Californians, the film is nonetheless a powerful indictment not only of one church and its position on one issue but of religion, especially authoritarian religion, in general. Whether it is the medieval Roman Catholics using the tortures and executions of the Holy Inquisition to enforce their doctrine and suppress free thought — including the “dangerous heresy” that the earth orbited the sun, not the other way around — or the Massachusetts Puritans setting up a Calvinist theocracy in the 1600’s and executing their political opponents as “witches,” the Communists (who officially denied the existence of God but were so highly dogmatic their cult functioned as a secular religion) sending people to gulags and “re-education camps”or modern-day religious movements seeking to ban reproductive freedom and thereby enslave women to their wombs, the evil lies not in one church or one issue but in the whole idea of a hierarchy of men (and yes, they almost always are all men) claiming some degree of wisdom from God or the dialectic or whatever and using that to impose a standard of obedience and deny even the legitimacy of debate, much less dissent.
And yet in the case of the Mormon church and the ferocity of their opposition to marriage equality for same-sex couples there’s also a singular element of tragedy. As Cowan’s film mentions in passing, in the 19th century it was the Mormons themselves who were persecuted, and many of them (including the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, Jr.) murdered, for advocating a form of marriage that was not “one man and one woman.” Indeed, for people who take the Bible as a guide to morality, the early Mormons who preached and practiced “plural marriage” — one man and more than one woman — had a much stronger case than the advocates of same-sex marriage today, since the traditional Biblical definition of marriage is actually one man and as many women as he can support financially — which, in practice, made polygamy a luxury of the rich.
One writer, commenting on the Nazis when they were still a going concern, coined the phrase, “Those to whom evil has been done/Do evil in return.” He was arguing that the harsh peace imposed on Germany at Versailles after World War I, especially the huge reparations payments that crippled the German economy, led the Germans to support the Nazis and elevate them to power. In turn we’ve seen the Jews, the Nazis’ principal victims, become the victimizers themselves in their insane policy of occupying Palestine and sentencing the inhabitants of Gaza to brutal collective punishment for daring to elect a government the Israeli leaders and their U.S. backers didn’t like.
And in 8: The Mormon Proposition we see a church that was driven to the desolate land of Utah in the first place by persecutors revolted by the 19th century Mormons’ redefinition of marriage — and being forced to renounce a basic principle of their religion by the U.S. government, which had massed federal troops on the Utah border ready to invade if the church leadership did not immediately ban polygamy — now taking a holier-than-thou attitude and leading an attack on a Queer community who are only asking that marriage be redefined to include them. The Mormons are yet another example of a group who have responded to past persecutions by becoming persecutors themselves, and 8: The Mormon Proposition depicts just how relentless and unscrupulous they have become in their jihad against this generation’s group of marriage rebels.
8: The Mormon Proposition is now playing at the Reading Gaslamp Plaza Cinemas, 701 5th Avenue in downtown San Diego. It is also currently available on DVD.