Movies We Like
8: The Mormon Proposition
I don’t think I’ve ever been as angry about a political issue in my lifetime as the issue of how Proposition 8 came to be law in the state of California. I’ve been mildly politically engaged for most of my life. I grew up in a house full of good liberals and I marched in a couple of Iraq war protests, but I’ve never really put anything on the line for a cause I believe in. Prop 8, the 2008 ballot initiative that defined marriage in California as solely between a man and a woman, made me really mad and I got involved in the fight against it. It confirmed my mostly cynical take on politics because everything about the way it played out seemed so frustratingly predictable.
I absolutely knew it was going to pass when I was listening to NPR one day in my car and heard a Yes On 8 spokeswoman say that if gay marriage was legal than kindergartners would be forced to learn how to gay marry one another. The NPR host, the comically awful and journalistically toothless Larry Mantle, had no follow up question and there was no one from No On 8 or any informed listener who bothered to call in and state that that particular allegation was completely made up. But listener after listener called in to instead say that while they had nothing against gay people it just wasn’t right to teach that in schools. It couldn’t have been planned any better for Yes On 8 if they had scripted it. It was a classic bait-and-switch strategy by the architects of their campaign and it worked like a charm.
A couple of months later blue state America was celebrating Obama’s historic win but gay rights supporters in California had a very bitter pill to swallow because Prop 8 had indeed become the law of the land. 8: The Mormon Proposition is a documentary exposé purporting to explain how it all went down. It does tell part of the story but it leaves out some important info. Still, it’s a painful reminder of how easy it is to disenfranchise a politically vulnerable group. If you watch it maybe save it for a weeknight because you’re going to be in a terrible mood afterward.
8: The Mormon Proposition lays the bulk of the blame for Prop 8’s existence with the Mormon Church. They’ve uncovered some pretty damning evidence that suggests that the Mormon Church was fanatically driven to get a gay marriage ban passed in California which has always been the bellwether state and thus a testing ground for laws that will influence the nation. Audio transcripts unveil a plan years in the making. Millions of dollars from church members were funneled into the Yes On 8 campaign. Church members speaking out against Prop 8 insist that they were led to believe that they had no choice in the matter. Some church members emptied all of their savings into supporting a gay marriage ban in California where very few Mormons actually reside.
All of this information is fascinating and important to know but the film leaves out a lot of things, namely the failure of the No On 8 campaign to mount a successful counter-attack. I volunteered with No On 8 and can attest that there were a lot of things wrong with how it was run. The No On 8 campaign hired outside consultants to craft a media campaign that hid actual gay couples from the commercials that were intended to humanize the issue for people. I don’t think the word "gay" was even used. Perhaps most damaging, though, was No On 8’s failure to anticipate the strategy that Yes On 8 used putting kids front and center in a craven attempt to manipulate people’s fears about gay people and kids. They knew what they were doing and they’ve done it before and it’s inexcusable that No On 8 had no response prepared. 8: The Mormon Proposition leaves all this out and they also basically ignore the other groups who contributed heavily to the Yes On 8 campaign. They focus completely on the Mormons and give out details about the Mormon belief system designed to make them seem like some kind of fringe cult group. It’s a little hard to take when they ignore every other religious belief system that might look similarly bizarre. But it’s the Mormons’ "otherness" that the filmmakers hone in on and it’s a tactic that strikes me as rather disingenuous and tacky.
The thing that redeems the film’s flaws for me, though, is the ultimate focus on the plight of gay Mormon youth and the hell they have to go through at the hands of bigoted church leaders and unloving families. The abuse that they suffer is perhaps the biggest scandal of all and it’s important to understand what has been done to them by their supposed "Christian" communities. Suicide is a common way out for them and the hopelessness they must feel is heartbreaking. Why would anyone listen to people talk about "family values" when they so willingly destroy their own?