Marriage Law and Mormons: The California Vote and Creeping Theocracy

Church & State, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Marriage Law and Mormons: The California Vote and Creeping Theocracy


Religious Right groups don't have a lot to crow about from last month's elections. They failed to put John McCain in office, and several of their House and Senate allies were defeated. Their enthusiastic support of McCain running mate Sarah Palin was not shared by the voting public.

But Nov. 4 was not a total loss for these groups. The Religious Right led successful ballot initiative drives to ban same-sex marriage in Arizona, Florida and California. In addition, Arkansas voters limited foster parenting and adoption to married couples, a move seen as aimed at blocking adoption by same-sex couples.

The California results have attracted a good bit of attention. Some polls leading up to the vote showed the measure trailing. Proposition 8 was pushed aggressively by the Religious Right and the state's Roman Catholic hierarchy, and many believe it was put over the top in large part by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). The church's leadership appealed for its members to donate money and time to the effort. Many did. An estimated $20 million in Mormon donations poured into the state.

Many Californians are angry. They resent the fact that a church based in Utah was able to meddle in state politics. Some gay rights activists are calling on the Internal Revenue Service to revoke the church's tax-exempt status.

Such demands are unlikely to bear fruit. If the Mormon leadership had used church money or resources to endorse a specific candidate for office, the IRS would probably be interested. But church-based issue advocacy is broadly protected. In this case, the hierarchy simply activated its membership.

Having said that, it's perfectly understandable that many people in California don't want to live under the rules of someone else's church. It doesn't seem to pass the theocratic smell test.

Consider what happened in California: A group of powerful religious traditions banded together, raised a lot of money and used it to persuade a majority of the voters to take away the civil rights of a minority group. The pro-Prop 8 ads may have been divisive and deceptive, but they worked.

To Religious Right strategists, that's democracy in action. If the majority of voters decide to write the marriage doctrines of the majority faiths into civil law, they say, that's their privilege.

What these organizations fail to grasp is that the United States was never intended to be an anything-goes, majority-rules nation. We are a constitutional republic that uses democratic principles in voting. Candidate A runs against Candidate B. The people vote, and one of them wins. That's democracy.

Our government, however, exists within the framework of our Constitution, which protects the rights of minorities from overweening majority tyranny. …

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Marriage Law and Mormons: The California Vote and Creeping Theocracy
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