The recent confrontation between the Mormon Church and the gay community bodes ill for Mormonism. It seems that the Mormons have begun to believe their own propaganda when it comes to seeing themselves as "just another" evangelical group. They aren't.
The evangelicals may be plenty crazy, as they have manifested themselves to be through the late great Religious Right (that is now crashing in flames following the Obama victory), but the Mormons are exponentially crazier when it comes to marriage, and gender roles.
I was raised in a religious fundamentalist home by evangelical leader parents. I left that upbringing, but am still a believer who, for the last 20 years, has gone to a Greek Orthodox church. But let's face it: all religion is weird, because humans are illogical -- believers and secular people alike. Still, to paraphrase the famous line from Animal Farm; some religions are weirder than others, especially when it comes to beliefs about marriage, sex and gender. One of the strangest is the Mormons.
New religions, where their founders are not shrouded by the merciful mists of time -- for instance L. Ron Hubbard of the Scientologists or Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormons -- seem stranger than the founders of older religions. Maybe that's unfair, but there it is. That is because the newcomers lived recently enough so that truth claims and character are easier to check out.
Here is just two of many quaint bits of Mormon "teaching" ( this first on race is no longer the official position of the church, but still...)
"And if any man mingles his seed with the seed of Cane [i.e black people] the only way he could get rid of it or have salvation would be to come forward & have his head cut off & spill his blood upon the ground. It would also take the life of his Children."
(Wilford Woodruff's Journal, 1852, Brigham Young's address before the legislative assembly of the Territory of Utah upon slavery)
"Nearly all the great discoveries of man in the last half century have, in one way or another, either directly or indirectly, contributed to prove Joseph Smith to be a Prophet... I know that he said the moon was inhabited by men and women the same as this earth, and that they lived to be a greater age than we do, that they lived generally to near the age of 1000 years. He described the men as averaging near six feet in height, and dressing quite uniformly in something near the Quaker style. In my Patriarchal blessing, given by the father of Joseph the Prophet, in Kirtland, 1837, I was told that I should preach the gospel to the inhabitants of the sea -- to the inhabitants of the moon, even the planet you can now behold with your eyes."
(Oliver B. Huntington, Young Woman's Journal, Vol. 3, p. 263-264)
So, okay, enough already of the "seed of Cain," moon men, on to marriage, California's Proposition 8 and the Mormons...
Why pick on gay people? Here's my theory.
The Mormons have assiduously pursued a policy of trying to be accepted as just one more of the thousands of Protestant splinter groups that, taken together, are often generically called "Christians" as a catchall for the born-again amongst us. That is why the Mormons jumped into this debate: make friends with the evangelical Religious Right and the more right wing Roman Catholics by joining the neighborhood Church Lady gang to beat up the gay guy.
The policy of the normalization of what is -- by traditional Christian standards anyway -- a bizarre new religion, built around a bizarre eccentric founder (and/or con man depending on your point of view) sometimes reaps successful dividends. For instance the recent gang-up-on-the-gay-guy tactic seemed to be working when a recent full-page NY Times advertisement was signed by leading evangelicals (such as Chuck Colson), declaring solidarity with the Mormon Church as it is "attacked" by gay activists protesting Prop. 8.
Look, as I said, I'm religious and therefore I balk at the idea of gay marriage. I am all for gay rights though, we're talking semantics here. But I could be wrong and I freely admit that A) my unease with calling a civil union a marriage comes from my evangelical upbringing and B) as someone who has been a real jerk to my wife at times, I'm in no position to tell anyone what to do about marriage, except to be kind and ask for forgiveness when you screw up.
And regardless of my "views" I'm not in anyone else's face telling them that I'm better than they are in the marriage/morals/sex department. (By the way, evangelical divorce rates are as high as the non-evangelical secular average.) But people who do get in other people's faces by fighting for laws to use against other people's sexual orientation open themselves to the same harsh scrutiny they are handing out.
My point here is not to stick an especially critical finger in the Mormon's faces, let alone say that Mormons are crazy people. (In my church we believe we eat the body and blood of Jesus!) I am just saying hypocrisy is bad. And for the Mormons to grandstand on marriage is just nuts, given their history and beliefs.
Most people who take a close look at Mormonism find it's kind of hard to believe that God would reveal himself in an oddly coincidental serendipity so conveniently in keeping with the burgeoning American exceptionalism of the 19th-century and the crazily fevered so-called "burnt-over" territories of religious fanaticism found in upstate New York back then.
Best I can tell, here was how the thinking went that got the Mormon invention started: We're a chosen nation, right? So Jesus must have come here! We're the center of the universe, right? So how come America isn't in the Bible? Never mind, we'll invent our own "new improved" bible! Best of all that new revelation will allow us to have all the women we want, even the really, really young girls.
Okay, so now these days "mainstream" Mormons don't marry fourteen-year-olds by the dozen, but that is their religious heritage and offshoot unofficial Mormon groups are still doing just that, molesting children and calling it marriage.
Hmmm... And these are the people who are going to tell American gay men and women how to live "normal" lives?
What is the sexual/marriage/gender teaching of the Mormons who are raising money to stop two men or women from marrying. Here's a taste:
A Mormon belief is that men resurrect their wives. The Mormon man becomes a god on some uninhabited planet. As the god of his own world he will resurrect those wives who were obedient to him. They then become the goddesses of his planet.
Heaven for Mormon women is nonstop pregnancy. They produce the "spirit babies" who populate the world when human babies are born. Also... those Mormon women not "sealed to their husbands" for all time and eternity in the temple marriage will be the servants of those goddess wives...
How did the Mormon view of marriage start? Mormon member and historian Todd Compton writes:
"In the group of Smith's well-documented wives, eleven (33 percent) were 14 to 20 years old when they married him. Nine wives (27 percent) were twenty-one to thirty years old. Eight wives (24 percent) were in Smith's own peer group, ages thirty-one to forty. In the group aged forty-one to fifty, there is a substantial drop off: two wives, or 6 percent, and three (9 percent) in the group aged fifty-one to sixty.
The teenage representation is the largest, though the twenty-year and thirty-year groups are comparable, which contradicts the Mormon folk-wisdom that sees the beginnings of polygamy was an attempt to care for older, unattached women. These data suggest that sexual attraction was an important part of the motivation for Smith's polygamy. In fact, the command to multiply and replenish the earth was part of the polygamy theology, so non-sexual marriage was generally not in the polygamous program, as Smith taught it."
With their support for Proposition 8 the Mormons have more or less done what someone might do who -- in an incredibly dumb moment -- decides to call up the local IRS office and start asking the kind of questions that inevitably leads to getting audited.
There is an old phrase that the Mormon leaders who launched their anti-gay crusade might have paid attention to: "people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones."
Frank Schaeffer is the author of CRAZY FOR GOD-How I Grew Up As One Of The Elect, Helped Found The Religious Right, And Lived To Take All (Or Almost All) Of It Back. Now in paperback.