In the run up to and in the wake of Prop 8, Latter-day Saint proponents of the measure have often tried to parse their words carefully when discussing their support for it in order to avoid charges of bigotry and hate for opposing the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry. Echoing a refrain from the late Gordon B. Hinckley, Mormon Prop 8 supporters have often tried to explain that they are “not anti-gay, but pro-marriage.” This effort, however, has clearly failed to shield members from allegations of discrimination. Some high profile examples include Marjorie Christoffersen, owner of the El Coyote Cafe near Hollywood, who donated $100 to the Yes on 8 campaign and is now trying to stave off a boycott of her restaurant. In speaking to a crowd gathered at the cafe yesterday, Sister Christofferson said:
I am sick at heart that I have offended anyone in the gay community…you are treasured to me…I’ve been a member of the Mormon Church all my life and I responded to their request. This was a personal donation, not the El Coyote’s. In like fashion, any employee can support anything of its choosing…The restaurant does not support any political group…I don’t know of another place on earth where such diversity exists in harmony, joy and mutual respect. I know boycotts are planned…It saddens me that my faith will keep you away from the Coyote. I cannot and I will not, no matter what, change my love and respect for you and your views.
Another member who has born a high personal cost is Scott Eckern, the artistic director of a major theater company in Sacramento, whose $1,000 donation to Yes on 8 caused a firestorm which led him to resign yesterday. In a statement released yesterday, Eckern said:
“I understand that my choice of supporting Proposition 8 has been the cause of many hurt feelings, maybe even betrayal. It was not my intent. I honestly had no idea that this would be the reaction. I chose to act upon my belief that the traditional definition of marriage should be preserved. I support each individual to have rights and access and I understood that in California domestic partnerships come with the same rights that come with marriage. My sister is a lesbian and in a committed domestic partnership relationship. I am loving and supportive of her and her family, and she is loving and supportive of me and my family. I definitely do not support any message or treatment of others that is hateful or instills fear. This is a highly emotional issue and the accusations that have been made against me are simply not true. I have now had many conversations with friends and colleagues,and I am deeply saddened that my personal beliefs and convictions have offended others…. I chose to express my views through the democratic process, and I am deeply sorry for any harm or injury I have caused in doing so. I want to support not only my friends and loved ones, but everyone in their efforts to receive equal rights so I will be making a comparable donation ($1000) to the Human Rights Campaign. I hope that through future conversations bridges may be built and healing can occur that will allow us to arrive at a better place of understanding for all involved.”
The situation these members find themselves in is not an enviable one. The debate has been framed without nuance as a battle of absolutes, either oppose Prop 8 and your Church or you’re a bigot, and they’ve been forced to try to stake out some middle ground without betraying their religious convictions.
This rhetorical balancing act has been especially difficult for Mormons in the public eye, many of whom have sought to avoid taking a public position on the issue. Shortly before the election, Steve Young was forced to address his own personal position on Prop 8 after his wife’s opposition to the measure got considerable press and was attributed to him. In response to questions about her support, Barbara intially said: “We believe all families matter, and we do not believe in discrimination, therefore, our family will vote against Prop. 8.” She later clarified her remarks, stating: “I am very passionate about this issue and Steve is completely supportive of me and my work for equality. We both love our Church and are grateful that our Church encourages us to vote our conscience. Steve prefers not to get involved politically on any issue no matter what the cause and therefore makes no endorsement.” When that failed to put an end to the news stories, Steve issued this additional statement:
“Barb and I love each other very much. It is that love of each other and the Savior that helps us come to the decisions we do. For Barb, who has a remarkable and enviable compassion for others, those political activities are far more public than mine. Those who know me, know I chose long ago not to be publicly active in the political process. I do have strong opinions. I do vote and will vote on Tuesday, but those matters are private. Barb and I and our children love our church and our faith, which allows for a wide diversity of political discourse. In our case, our diversity does not diminish in any way our or my love, respect and sustaining of the leadership of our church, which is deep and profound.”
More recently, as calls for a boycott of the Marriott International hotel chain were being bandied about, Willard J. Marriott Jr. made a post on the Marriot blog laying out “The Facts About Marriott and California’s Proposition 8” which stressed that neither he nor his company had contributed to the Prop 8 campaign:
As many of you may know I’m a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some might conclude given my family’s membership in the Mormon Church that our company supported the recent ballot initiative to ban same sex marriage in California. This is simply untrue. Marriott International is a public company headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland, and is not controlled by any one individual or family. Neither I, nor the company, contributed to the campaign to pass Proposition 8.
The Bible that I love teaches me about honesty, integrity and unconditional love for all people. But beyond that, I am very careful about separating my personal faith and beliefs from how we run our business.
I am personally motivated to speak now because Marriott was built on the basic principles of respect and inclusion. My father, who founded this company along with my mother, told everyone who would listen: “Take care of your employees, and they’ll take care of your customers, who will come back again and again.”
For more than 80 years, our company has grown and changed, but that basic principle still holds up. We embrace all people as our customers, associates, owners and franchisees regardless of race, sex, gender identity or sexual orientation.
Our principle is backed up with a formal diversity program, which we established more than 20 years ago. Our Board of Directors has also focused on this priority and helped us be a leader and a better company. We were among the first in our industry to offer domestic partner benefits, and we’ve earned a perfect 100% score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index for two years in a row. Many of our hotels have hosted LGBT community functions and events for years.
One of the problems that these various experiences highlight is the rhetorical difficulties faced by members, both in and out of the public eye, who discuss their positions on Prop 8. Members who have supported the measure have the near impossible challenge (given the absolutist framework they’ve been given to work within) of trying to explain how they are “not anti-gay, but pro-marriage” without being portrayed as narrow-minded bigots. And members who either are trying to stay publicly neutral or who might oppose Prop 8 face the equally daunting challenge of expressing that neutrality or opposition in a way that does not cast aspersions on the Church. All three groups, those who support, are neutral, or oppose, also face a similar challenge of expressing support for gays and lesbians without suggesting that the many Americans who are not in favor of gay marriage must necessarily be uncompassionate, disrespectful and intolerant. From this one might justifiably conclude that the triumph of ideology on this issue has left little room for genuine discussion. The ideological rhetoric that has emerged as a result does not appear to be seeking, through careful deliberation, to arrive at the “truth” (since it claims eo ipso to already possess it), its goal instead seems to be for power; that is to mobilize mass support and limit opposition. This has left members of the Church, regardless of their views, in a pretty tough spot when discussing Prop 8.
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