Because I’m a fan of exposing bigotry and hypocrisy whenever possible, because I’m a fan of following the money trail in politics, and because I’m a fan of tearing down cultural institutions that encourage hate, the new documentary 8: The Mormon Proposition is the kind of film I really want to like.
The man behind it, Reed Cowan, has explained that his goal was to break through the “impenetrable fortress” of the Church of Latter Day Saints, in order to expose its role in the passage of California’s Proposition 8, the constitutional amendment that made it illegal for gays to marry in the state. That’s a cause I’d love to get behind—if the film didn’t commit some of the very sins it hangs on the doorstep of the Mormon Church.
‘Give Your Means And Time’
The film convincingly details how elders in the Mormon church used their high positions to pressure church members nationwide to donate their money and time in support of an antigay agenda, designed to roll back recent court decisions that legalized gay marriage in California. Video and sound clips show elders asking congregants to “give of your means and time,”—apparently a thinly veiled threat that refusal to do so would result in eternal damnation. These clips are interwoven with stories of church officials visiting members’ homes with their congregants’ financial records in hand, declaring exactly how much each member could donate to the cause.
The church was also a major donor in an antigay advertising blitz that intentionally spread half-truths and outright lies about the potential effects of gay marriage. These ads suggested that if gay marriage were legalized, churches would be forced to marry gays.
The film is rife with horror stories of the persecution and—in some cases—outright torture of young gay Mormons. One such practice at Brigham Young University (a Mormon institution), so-called ‘aversion therapy,’ involves the application of electric shocks to the genitals while showing gay porn to suspected homosexuals. A survivor of this ‘treatment’ tells how many of his peers who were also subjected to this torture either quietly left the university or committed suicide. In fact, the narrator explains, Utah’s suicide rate is the highest in the nation, largely due to the high suicide rate among young Mormon men. It is suggested that many of these cases stem from the youths’ terror of and shame at feeling attracted to men.
A Problematic Invective
8: The Mormon Proposition is a case of an intrepid David taking on an evil, cruel-hearted Goliath. That’s the kind of fight I like to see, and so I believe this is the kind of film that deserves our support. But this is a film plagued with problems. Not least of these is its tendency to employ a tactic for which it vilifies the Mormon Church: It plays loose with facts.
For example, it isn’t clear where the filmmakers got the abovementioned statistic about Utah’s suicide rate; the National Center for Health Statistics places the state 15th, with a rate of 14.3 suicides per 100,000 people. The American Association of Suicidology puts Utah 34th in the nation for suicide among adolescents. Perhaps I’m misremembering the exact wording of that part of the film—but if I’m getting it wrong you can bet others who see 8 will, too. (By the way, I’m not questioning whether the Mormon Church’s anti-gay stance leads to a disproportionate suicide rate among young men; I’m only questioning why the film would state this fact in a misleading way.)
Though I’m by no means an expert in Mormonism, the film seems to mischaracterize the LDS religion, as well. Early on, the narrator suggests that Mormons embrace polygamy, when in fact the church officially banned polygamy more than 100 years ago, in 1890. This might seem like quibbling, except that the polygamy issue becomes an important one in the film, which returns to it again and again to attack the church’s hypocrisy in opposing gay marriage.
For Issues Large And Small, Errors Pose Equal Danger
Even minor factual errors become problematic in a film that purports to reveal “the truth” behind Proposition 8. In the end, however, the biggest problem with 8 is that it fails to nail the most important argument of all: That the Mormon church opposes gay marriage because it runs counter to the dictates contained within the Book of Mormon, the key text in the LDS religion. Mormons are promised an afterlife wherein each man would be hitched to many spiritual wives, for all to live in bliss in their own celestial bodies. As the interviewees explain, same-sex marriage then confounds the heteronormative structures of Mormon heaven; therefore Mormon elders are committed to WIPING GAY MARRIAGE OFF THE FACE OF THE EARTH.
It’s hard to believe, though, that this alone was sufficient motivation for the church to use millions of dollars of congregants’ money and thousands of hours of congregants’ time to bankroll a campaign to ban gay marriage in a liberal state with generally liberal laws and what’s really a tiny Mormon population:
- First of all, the LDS church has not had a problem with rescinding Biblical law when it’s politically expedient. Polygamy, for example, was a core tenet of the church until it became clear that the U.S. government was not about to let that practice continue, at which point a divine dictate officially ended the practice.
- Then, too, the church denied full membership to African American congregants until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s made this denial seem increasingly racist, at which point a divine dictate officially ended the practice.
Indeed, as 8 is careful to point out, Mormon leaders coached congregants not to look or act like Mormons when they canvassed California neighborhoods in support of Proposition 8. Documents from a previous LDS-led effort to ban gay marriage in Hawaii underscore the point: Since most people held a negative opinion of the Mormon Church, the most effective way for them to win the fight was to trick people into thinking they weren’t involved.
Uncovering The Church’s Reasons For An Anti-Gay Campaign
The Mormon church is a politically savvy organization, one that has demonstrated a willingness to shift its doctrines in order to ensure its survival. It’s also an organization that’s perfectly happy to simply excommunicate worshippers who question the church’s tenets or fail to live an upright Mormon life. It’s really hard to believe, then, that all of that effort to mobilize and fund a campaign against gay marriage was a result simply of… thinking gays are icky.
Here’s my theory: I suspect the LDS church was hoping to gain some political capital through these campaigns, if only to gain seats in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and, perhaps, support for a(nother) Mormon candidate for President. Though backlash against the Church has been fairly strong in this case, the publicity it’s caused has also led to a rallying of conservative troops behind its cherished cause—which in turn has prompted higher visibility, and an increase in the Church’s conservative credentials. I would not be surprised to see a prominent Mormon—perhaps even former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney—trying to gain the Oval Office.
At the end of 8, protesters are shown picketing the great Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. The footage suggests that this resistance is a sign of growing momentum in favor of rescinding anti-gay laws, re-legalizing gay marriage, and holding the Mormon church accountable for promoting hate. Yet I wonder what evidence is used to support this assertion that the tide is finally turning in favor of gay rights. Is it the evidence that Americans are still more likely to oppose legalizing gay marriage than support it? Is it the likelihood that the Mormon Church will never be asked to answer for its involvement in this and other political campaigns? Or is it the recent uptick in antigay legislators in the House and Senate?
The tide is turning, we are informed in the closing minutes of 8: The Mormon Proposition. Yet I was left wondering if this change was yet another example of the film playing loose with the facts.
Jenna McWilliams is a guest movie reviewer for WFIU. Visit her website for more reviews.
Statements made by guest reviewers do not necessarily reflect the views of WFIU Public Media or Indiana University.