In war, it's the basic axiom that you can't win if you don't know your enemy. Clearly, we who opposed Prop 8 don't know our enemy well enough. If we had, we could have gotten Prop 8 defeated. And the fact is, many LGBT people in California were a little overconfident because the polls looked good for us at one point. They also trusted too much in California's reputation as "liberal," without taking into account the powerful conservative streak in our state. So they were shocked and distressed when the Prop 8 voting results came in.
With Barack Obama now in office, and the Equality Summit about to take place in L.A. on January 24, a firestorm of finger-pointing is still going on. The Mormon Church is being blamed, because of their high visibility in the Yes on 8 campaign. Some LGBT people are bent on determining what people on our side didn't do a good enough job of fighting 8. But the fact is -- our enemy is way bigger, and more complex, than just the Mormons.
I'm seeing all the comments that LGBT activism should target the Mormon Church alone because they shelled out the most money. I disagree 110 percent -- this strategy would be ineffective. It's like bombing a single fortified position, when we should be carpet-bombing the whole battlefield.
As someone who studies conservative religion's oppressive role in American history, I think it's important to take a much closer look at how diverse the "yes on 8" lobby is -- and how it got their point across to California voters.
Looking at Los Angeles County
After the vote count, all of California was shaken by shocked protests, marches and loud laments at the "surprise" passage of Proposition 8. Los Angeles County saw the fiercest protests. After all, Los Angeles County traditionally votes Democratic. What had gone wrong?
The cities of West Hollywood and Los Angeles saw their waves of protests, arrests and the usual complaints about police brutality. In Silver Lake, 13,000 people reportedly marched in the streets...probably the first political happening in a long time for this quiet L.A. neighborhood known for quaint residential streets and leather bars. Feelings were running high -- though not quite as high as the 1979 White Nights riots after the leninent sentencing of Dan White, Harvey Milk's murderer, when outraged LGBT San Franciscans vented their disgust at the justice system by burning police cars.
Gay people who believed that the Mormon Church lives only in Utah were shocked to see how established and powerful the Latter-Day Saints are in California. It was noted that the Mormons were visibly the biggest church contributor to the Yes on 8 campaign, pouring millions into advertising. In various California cities, Mormon temples were targeted for demonstrations by surprised and angry locals. Next came a political movement that aimed to punish the Mormon Church by getting the IRS to strip them of their tax-exempt status. Not to mention the launch of an investigation into allegations that the Mormon Church had violated state election regulations on reporting contributions.
I agree 110 percent that violators of IRS regulations should lose their nonprofit status. And I agree that the Mormon Church should be punished for any violation of state laws. But why stop at the Mormon Church? Let's see to it that all the Yes on 8 religious supporters are neutralized somehow. And there are a great many of them.
A long list of churches and organizations that supported Prop 8 was put together by Intolerant Faith, an activist website run by author and atheist Joe McGraw. He gathered it from various sources, including Yes on 8 literature and public records on contributions. The list is astounding for its diversity -- Mormons, Catholics, Anglicans, Jews, Protestant evangelicals and pentecostals, blacks, Latinos and Asians. Both churches and ministries, as well as organizations, are on the list.
Scanning this list, I realized just how grassroots and local is the "yes on 8" movement.
Right in my own back yard -- which happens to be Los Angeles County -- Prop 8 was heavily supported by church bodies of every kind . For many of us LGBT Angelenos, these might be churches that we live near, or drive past as we commute to work. People who attend these churches may work side by side with us at our jobs. They include the Alpha and Omega Arlington Apostolic Church in Riverside, the Bible Fellowship Church in Ventura, First Evangelical Church of Cerritos, Evangelical Free Church of Walnut, Christian Outreach for Armenians in Glendale, Living Faith Christian Fellowship in Garden Grove, Joy Ministry for Christ, Los Angeles, Love and Unity Church of God in Christ in Compton, Ray of Hope Church in Pomona. These are just a few of the hundreds of institutions peppering southern California that got together to oppose our right to marry.
In other words, the enemy isn't merely a couple of huge monolithic organizations out there, like Focus on the Family (which is also on the list).
How the Yes on 8 Machinery Worked
So how did L.A. County go for "yes on 8?"
To start with, the massive Democratic voter-registration effort for this 2008 election prompted the emergence of a new swing vote that is heavily conservative on some issues. So the county's Democratic vote now has a lethal split. L. A. County elected Obama by 69.3% of the vote, but it also passed Prop. 8 by 50.4% of the vote. The split does not bode well for future propositions affecting other civil-rights issues, like women's reproductive choice. L.A. County did defeat Prop. 4 (abortion notification) but only narrowly, by 53.6%. That narrow margin could vanish in future, given the heavier church lobbying that is sure to develop.
These figures tell me that religious belief weighed way more heavily than race in the Prop 8 vote...which is why I don't believe the allegations that African-Americans were responsible for passing Prop 8. Clearly this list shows that other conservative ethnic groups were in the yes-on-8 mix.
How did the enemy get to be so politically powerful in Los Angeles County? Because in 2005, for the first time in U.S. history, the IRS allowed a major national conservative org -- the Christian Coalition -- to keep their tax-exempt status. The IRS did this even though they knew the CC was violating IRS regulations by distributing million of voter guides. In order to maintain separation of church and state, IRS regulations are clear on how churches can -- and can't -- participate in the political process. Under the Bush administration, the IRS leaned in the direction of protecting the right...which meant that they went lax about enforcement where ultraconservative church nonprofits are concerned.
The 2005 IRS decision opened the floodgates for every little church and org in the U.S., who now know that they can break the law with impunity -- the IRS won't go after them. The Christian Coalition distributed its voter guides to many individual churches and organizations in California.
In Los Angeles County, the state's most populous county, the distribution of these church materials would have had a big impact. From there, pastors and political volunteers could have the voter guides handed out to churchgoing voters -- and they could also appeal to their flocks for contributions. Religions have an unmatched power to raise money from Americans who ordinarily don't make campaign contributions. They do this by tweaking their followers' consciences and invoking the religious "duty" of every follower to tithe.
The Intolerant Faith list has hundreds of names on it. If 100 local churches and ministries each contribute $10,000 (which could be raised with a couple of bake sales or bingo games), that adds up to $1 million in contributions from Los Angeles County alone. A combined grassroots state-wide effort to scratch church dollars together adds up to a lot of money for paid advertising on TV. The advertising clearly had an impact on the vote's outcome. And admittedly, while some LGBT activist organizations did make strategic mistakes of their own on No on 8 advertising, I think that the enemy's own powerfully misleading and inaccurate ads -- which were paid for by all these hundreds of church groups' combined monies, not just by the Mormon Church -- were a big factor in winning the day for Prop 8.
The Yes on 8 ads focused heavily on what religious righters want taught about marriage in public schools. According to a report in the Los Angeles, Times, these ads resonated heavily with conservative voters in Los Angeles County, where the Los Angeles Unified School District, with its 750,000 students, is the largest in the state and the second largest in the U.S. So it's easy to see how Yes on 8 propaganda could swing conservative parents with children in public schools. As a former commissioner of education in LAUSD, I am personally very familiar with the reactionary streak among many parents in our school district. They would not want same-sex marriage mentioned in the classroom (nor anything else gay-related, for that matter).
So "knowing the enemy" means recognizing that we must deal with ALL the enemies of same sex marriage, big and small.
Yes on 8 Goes National
If you know your enemies well enough, you can hit them where their defenses are weakest. Clearly the religious right's most vulnerable point is this: they are entirely dependent on IRS favoritism for their present untrammeled opportunity to propagandize voters. So this is the point where we should be bombing them.
A recent AP story reveals that the California yes-on-8 contributors are taking their show on the road to other states. The AP said: "Conservative activists want to apply the same formula they used to outlaw same-sex marriage in California to prevent other states from recognizing gay unions and President-elect Barack Obama from expanding the rights of gays and lesbians."
Bottom line: our enemies now have the opportunity and the impetus to go national and stomp same-sex marriage in other states. We stand to lose again and again in other states if we don't adopt a better strategy.
So we LGBT people need to stop putting so much time and energy into the blame game among ourselves. We need to concentrate on getting Prop 8 nixed in California. We also need to help concerned voters outside of California lobby the Obama administration to compel the IRS to enforce its own rules on church and state. And we have no time to waste. The religious right are more numerous than we are, and can leverage more money than we can. So we can't let them get ahead of us on national fund-raising for attacks on same-sex marriage in other states.
American politics is already deathly sick because of campaign-funding issues. In his first few days in office, President Obama has mentioned a lot of issues, and taken action on them, but he hasn't mentioned campaign reform yet. I do hope it's on his "to do" list somewhere, because this is one of the festering national problems that his administration should be tackling. The multimillions that it now takes to get elected to any national office, whether the Presidency or Congress, means that politics is now a blackjack game for the wealthy. Even local offices (like West Hollywood city council, which I ran for in 2007) can require $100,000 or more for an effective campaign.
But it makes our country even sicker politically to let the IRS throw doors wide open to contributions by churches and faith-based organizations. In fact, this political sickness can actually put our democracy at death's door.
Intolerant Faith website with its list