‘8: The Mormon Proposition’ is a powerful expose
On the Cine Synapse rating scale, this film receives a:
Take It or Leave It
Well Worth Your While
California’s first gay marriages took place two years ago. But it was a sadly brief moment of civil-liberties sunshine. Mostly funded and energized by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Proposition 8, outlawing same-sex marriage, stomped on those rights just months later.
Thanks in large part to the investigative work of political activist and watchdog Fred Karger, it’s no secret that the Mormon Church was the primary bankroller and mover behind Prop 8. Particularly after the ballot proposition passed, the church actually touted its involvement, though during the hugely expensive campaign–in which supporters spent some $43 million against proposition opponents’ roughly $40 million–LDS strategically kept its profile fairly low as part of an ostensible coalition with Catholics and Evangelicals. It had earlier done the same in successfully sabotaging same-sex marriage rights in Hawaii.
But if the outlines of the story have been clear for some time, the ugly details and tone of the Mormon effort are brought to the fore in Reed Cowan’s passionate documentary 8: The Mormon Proposition. Cowan and most of his crew, as well as many of their featured interview subjects, grew up gay and Mormon in Utah, and 8 has the feverish indignation of an intrareligious insurgency. The project began as a chronicle of cast-off homeless gay Mormon teens, but when Salt Lake LDS elders systematically invaded California politics, Cowan changed the film’s angle and scope.
Still, elements of the preliminary project remain, and once the machinations of the Prop 8 politics are explored, by Karger and others, Cowan focuses on the history of Mormons’ persecution of their gay youth. At the political level this is embodied in the mouth-foaming hatred of Mormon Bishop and Utah State Senator Chris Buttars. At the college level, an alumnus of Brigham Young University harrowingly recounts psychological and physical torture of its gay students. And if you think “torture” is an overstatement, listen to the testimony of that alum, Bruce Barton, who describes university officials stripping and binding him, and electrically shocking his genitals in an effort to brainwash away his homosexual urges. His friends were treated similarly, he says, and were not all as successful as he has been in surviving it. Cowan interviews several gay and lesbian Mormons who tried to kill themselves in moments of shamed despair, and other cases are cited in which such attempts succeeded. A church member describes an LDS official essentially saying good riddance to the deceased at the funeral in one of those instances.
Mormon and ex-Mormon commentators explain not just the financial but the socio-religious torque of Prophet Thomas S. Monson’s call to “do all you can to support the proposed constitutional amendment by donating of your means and time.” “Means and time” is a far-from-casual phrase signaling, we’re told, that Mormons who didn’t devote their checkbooks and time to the Prop 8 efforts would be in dire social and spiritual straits, and that threat was followed up, church members say, with visits to their homes by LDS officials suggesting very specific (and hefty) donation amounts. The campaign incorporated skillful and deceptive fear politics, suggesting that religious freedoms were at stake when they simply weren’t.
California and federal tax and election officials have investigated the financial and political ramifications of a tax-exempt religious organization’s initiating such a blatant and specific political campaign. Meanwhile, the movie documents Prop 8’s toll on individual Mormon families, like those of Tyler Barrick and Spencer Jones, who got married in San Francisco during that brief statutory window before Prop 8 and after the California Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the previous ban on same-sex marriage. Cowan highlights the irony of Mormon-fueled anti-gay discrimination against Barrick, who is a direct descendant of an LDS founding father, Frederick Granger Williams. Williams was hounded from state to state and eventually out of the country because of his polygamy.
Sociologists, psychologists, and religious-studies scholars can study whether the LDS hierarchy’s extreme aversion to homosexuality is related in some compensatory way to polygamy in the church’s history, however distant, and the practice’s enshrinement in its theology of the afterlife. But Cowan makes clear that in the here and now, the church’s actions are tearing many of its members’ families apart, in addition to fueling discriminatory practices beyond the borders of the church.
Mormon leaders themselves cast their Prop 8 campaign in terms of “war.” Well, if it’s war they want, it’s war they’ve got. They have the hard-won American freedom to get politically involved within the legal confines that municipal, state, and federal officials determine legitimate. Maybe they even have the freedom to hound their own members to early deaths and rip apart their families–they certainly don’t have a denominational patent on psychological manipulation of their congregations. Lots of religions are guilty of that.
But Mormons and ex-Mormons have the right to make eloquent, justly outraged films, and to form powerful, well-funded coalitions of their own. And if the Mormon church narrowly won the Prop 8 battle, the legal same-sex marriages being performed in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Washington, D.C.; recognition of same-sex marriages in Maryland, New York, and Rhode Island; the long-overdue impending shove being given to don’t ask, don’t tell; a summit in the works of gay college presidents; and similar developments suggest the church will lose this war.
Meanwhile, to Tyler Barrick and Spencer Jones, and to all the other devoted couples out there, mazel tov. Don’t give up hope. Time and democracy are on your side.