When Mormons Mobilize: Anti-Gay Marriage Prop. 8 Effort ‘Outed’?

On Wednesday, January 20, in a federal courthouse in San Francisco, plaintiffs in the Perry vs. Schwarzenegger trial challenging the legality of California’s Proposition 8 introduced two documents (over strenuous objections from the defense) indicating close but cautious coordination between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Yes on 8 campaign.

The documents, according to plaintiffs’ witness Gary Segura, a professor of political science at Stanford University, indicated a desire on the part of the Church to create “plausible deniability or respectable distance between the church organization per se and the actual campaign.”

Segura’s words soon rippled across the gay blogosphere, as trial watchers from The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan to Julia Rosen of the California-based Courage Campaign latched onto the phrase “plausible deniability” as an “explosive” indictment of the Mormon Church’s allegedly behind-the-scenes relationship to the Proposition 8 campaign.

But to Mormons in California (both those who supported the Yes on 8 campaign and those who opposed it), the relationship between the church and the Proposition 8 campaign has always been undeniable.

Mormons Account for 75% of Donations

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has stated in its official news releases that it acted as part of a “coalition” of faith groups supporting Proposition 8, which amended the California State Consitution to eliminate civil marriage rights for gays and lesbians.

Says Laura Compton, spokesperson for Mormonsformarriage.com: “I’ve always said that it’s a coalition and the Mormons are Goliath.”

Documents compiled by Mormon supporters of same-sex marriage—including campaign time lines and donor profiles—show that LDS Church ecclesiastical structures, resources, and relationships were fully mobilized to generate the majority of volunteers and donations for the Yes on 8 campaign, even as Church members were coached to handle their Mormonism carefully in campaign contributions and activities.

There was nothing plausibly deniable about the Church’s relationship to the Proposition 8 campaign when, in Sunday meetings on June 29, 2008, a letter from Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints President Thomas Monson was read over the pulpit of every Mormon congregation in California urging Church members to “do all you can” to support the ballot measure.

Early donations from Mormons were solicited in July, when letters read in Sunday meetings of men’s and women’s church auxiliaries conveyed a $10 million fundraising goal for July and August and instructed Church members to donate exclusively to protectmarriage.com. Donors were asked to identify their home congregation on donation forms, according to campaign observers, so that Mormon congregations could track their progress towards meeting fundraising targets set for each congregation based on their ability to pay as assessed from records of church offerings.

The Church-coordinated fundraising drive intensified in late August, when select LDS Church members identified as potential large donors were invited to participate in conference calls with members of the Quorum of the Seventy, a high-ranking Church leadership body. (Mormon Yes on 8 campaign observers believe that tithing records were used to identify call participants.) On the conference calls, high-ranking church leaders encouraged potential large donors to individually contribute $25,000 to protectmarriage.com.

That’s when Nadine Hansen, a Mormon veteran of the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment, initiated an effort to document the extent of Mormon funding for the Yes on 8 campaign. During the ERA campaign, Mormon feminist Sonia Johnson had shared with Hansen fundraising disclosure sheets from an anti-ERA group that had raised money in California. Using church directories, Hansen was then able to identify “all but one or two” of the ERA donors as Mormon. Sensing that the Church was pressing ERA-era strategies into service once again, she prepared to undertake the same donor-identification project for Proposition 8 at the Web site mormonsfor8.com.

In early September, a surge of $25,000 donations began to appear in campaign finance records compiled by the California Secretary of State. Hansen and a crew of Mormon supporters of same-sex marriage began to comb large donor records to identify Mormon Church members. By Election Day, mormonsfor8.com volunteers had successfully identified more than 50% of the large donors as members of the LDS Church. “And we know that we did not identify all of the Mormon donors,” Hansen relates. “You can see that in some places virtually all the money that came in came from Mormons. It’s a safe bet to say that Mormons contributed over half the money. It might be as high as 75%.”

Don’t Dress Like a Missionary

Mobilizing highly centralized and hierarchical ecclesiastical structures, Mormons also contributed as much as 80-90% of the volunteer labor for the campaign.

Implementation of a statewide grassroots volunteer structure began in late July, with volunteers coordinated through geographically-organized Mormon ecclesiastical units called “wards” and “stakes.” Church members received “callings,” or ecclesiastical assignments understood by orthodox church members to be divinely inspired, from their local church leaders to serve as regional (or “stake”-level) directors and zip code (or “ward”-level) supervisors for grassroots campaigning. One LDS zipcode supervisor reported that the Mormon Church was “the only member of the Protect Marriage coalition” to participate in the Yes on 8 ground campaign.

On August 16, the Yes on 8 ground-campaign began its voter-identification phase, with a reported 15,000–30,000 Mormon precinct walkers knocking doors each weekend in August to identify “yes,” “soft yes,” “undecided,” “soft no,” and “no” voters and to commit “yes” voters to display “Yes on 8” lawn signs. The door-to-door voter identification campaign continued through September.

Mormon volunteers were coached to avoid disclosing their ties to the LDS Church. “When we went to our training meetings, they said, don’t bring up the fact that you’re Mormon. Don’t wear white shirts and ties; don’t look like missionaries. When you go out [canvassing], bring a non-member friend. When you’re calling people, don’t say I’m a Mormon,” says Laura Compton.

On October 8, LDS Church members in California attended a special meeting broadcast from Salt Lake City by satellite to wards and stakes throughout California and to BYU students with California ties. Encouraging Church members to think of the satellite broadcast as though they were “sitting in [a] living room having a confidential talk,” high-ranking LDS Church officials, members of the Quorum of the Twelve and the Quorum of the Seventy, introduced Church members to the final voter persuasion and get-out-the-vote “phases” of the campaign, asking members to use social networking technology to “go viral” with their support for Proposition 8 and commit four hours each week to the ground and phone campaign.

A primary source of Mormon messaging during the Proposition 8 campaign was the anonymously-authored “Six Consequences if Prop 8 Fails” document, which went viral across Mormon social networks after its introduction by email in mid-August and was utilized as a training document and handout in the Mormon-coordinated ground campaign. The document alleged that the legalization of same-sex marriage would eventuate in the teaching of same-sex marriage in public schools and the elimination of religious freedoms. Mormon legal scholar Morris Thurston described this as “untrue” and “misleading” and urged the LDS Church to discontinue its further dissemination.

Even as some Mormons urged the LDS Church to dissociate itself from questionable tactics of the Yes on 8 campaign, the profound connection between the Church and the campaign was obvious to insiders. As Laura Compton of mormonsformarriage.com relates, “Anybody who was part of the process knew exactly where they were getting their marching orders from.”

Highly centralized and hierarchical LDS institutional structures, widespread experience with door-to-door proselytizing, disciplined messaging among former missionaries, and extensive social networks that facilitated viral messaging, combined with a religious and cultural tradition that assigns enormous value to obedience to church authorities, service, discipline, and sacrifice to create a potent political force that was no secret to those within the culture.

According to Laura Compton, the LDS Church provided the “backbone of leadership, flesh of volunteers, blood of money” for the Yes on 8 campaign. “When there’s a natural disaster, Mormons are among the first to mobilize with resources and volunteers, and they get a lot done very fast. This time they applied their talents to what they perceived to be a political disaster. They’re good at mobilizing and they work hard.”

Still, Compton and other Mormon observers of the Proposition 8 campaign continue to wonder why the Church has been reticent to acknowledge the extent of its influence.

“They did not want to be outed,” Hansen relates. “And yet they were with ones with all the organizational skills. And whether its because [the Church] is concerned about tax-exempt status or they want to avoid bad publicity… they want to do it and not have anyone know they do it at the same time.”

One cultural factor contributing to this apparent two-mindedness is the continuing insularity of Mormon culture. Mormon studies scholars suggest that Mormons living outside of Utah (like other minorities) have developed a “divided sense of self” and a related tendency to adopt a self-monitored or “coded” form of speech with outsiders.

Hansen recalls this same insider-outsider mentality from the political struggle over the Equal Rights Amendment, recalling that a man from her Mormon ward “called me, upset because I had written this letter to the editor… ‘You’re making the Church look bad,’ he said. But I said, ‘I’m not making the Church look bad. I’m telling what the Church is doing. If it looks bad, it’s because it is bad.’”

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.