October 25, 2008

Prop 8 Tangles Religion, Tech and Politics

Though I typically limit the amount of politics or religious discussion here, California's Proposition 8 has garnered the attention of many people across the social networks I participate. It's seen elite tech companies pledge their opposition, and quite visibly, the church I belong to has asked its members to support the initiative.

Prop 8 is the perfect storm of a debate, one that touches on everything from civil rights to equality, morality, faith, and idealism, with people sitting on the fence being very rare indeed. I wanted to see if it's possible to take such a volatile topic and have an intelligent discourse, although it's easier to slip into finger-pointing and name-calling. Positive discussions have already taken place a few times on FriendFeed, but most blogging and tweeting has taken one extreme side or another, without those talking trying to find why we have differences of opinion.

Yesterday, Apple pledged their opposition to the initiative, and offered to fund its defeat. This came weeks after Google similarly voiced opposition, at a time when the current polls show the state's voters to be divided. (See: FiveThirtyEight.com: Prop 8 a Toss-Up) Combined with accusations on both sides of shady behavior, ranging from blackmail letters to signs being stolen and, in a local case, an SUV labeled "bigots live here" being placed in front of a Pro Prop 8 home, it's a case of a divisive issue pushing people further apart.

Politics and religion make tough bedfellows. (No pun intended)

In theory, politics should be based on one's studying of the issues, and reaching a conclusion through a combination of facts. Religion, while often largely fact-based, also asks you to make decisions based on faith in things not fully understood and unseen, while trusting leadership who give guidance said to be of divine source.

Looking inwardly, there are multiple factors in play. On a personal level, many of my closest friends are gay, a pair of them being good friends who I've known for 15 years, each of whom came out in college after we had sparred over girls in high school. Some of them are in long-term relationships with their partners, which, were they straight, would be marriages by now. Also, two weeks ago, our family attended a same sex marriage between my mother's life-long best friend and her partner of 19 years in what was a beautiful ceremony in Berkeley. On a political level, I am a Democrat through and through. I share an almost complete affinity with the party's platform. On a religious level, I am Mormon, and know the church's teachings have brought a lot of clarity to the way I operate my life, and offer good guidance on how to have successful family, personal and business relationships.

That my political and personal leanings are in assumed conflict with the church's support for the initiative is extremely trying. Assuming I were to ever seek public office as a Democrat (should I ever want to), my public support for Prop 8 could be used against me. But also, public opposition for Prop 8 as an active church member would have me associating with groups that run contrary to the church, which I would like to avoid.

The LDS church considers itself apolitical. It doesn't tell its members how to vote, and doesn't endorse candidates (See their letter this year). But they have seen the Prop 8 battle as a moral issue, in the same way that Prop 8's opponents see it as a civil rights issue. They have asked members to support the initiative with their time and money, although the church itself is not funding the campaign directly. As a member, every time the church becomes entangled in politics, it makes me uncomfortable, and at times I find myself having to explain "their position" rather than "my position", which can often make me seem significantly more conservative than I am. But, again, as with many parts of religion, as was discussed last Sunday in our weekly sermon (for lack of a better word), as mortals, we know we don't have all the facts. I don't understand how two men or two women being married would ever negatively impact my family, and if I were running the Yes on 8 campaign, I certainly wouldn't be focusing on the children and school angle, as I don't think it's the schools' role to teach marriage to kids anyway. Teachers are busy enough as it is.

As a political observer, I see that Californian voters have a history of choosing exclusion over inclusion. Proposition 8 came to bear only after the existing Proposition 22, which mandated marriage as being between opposite genders, was overturned by judges' rule. That proposition, which was on the ballot in 2000, passed with a 61.4% to 38.6% margin. Similarly, back in 1994, Proposition 187, a ballot initiative aimed to deny illegal immigrants health care and school attendance, passed with 58.8% of the vote. When it comes to pitting a majority against a minority in this state, the wedge issues always seem to find a backer, and I think, despite the high profile opposition, Prop 8 will likely see the same fate, bringing an end to the same-gender marriages that are happening now, and bringing very personal sadness to those thousands of couples in the state who thought the doors had finally opened up.

It certainly would be a lot easier if the ballot initiative didn't exist, but you can't exactly put the cat back in the bag once it has escaped. The resulting back and forth discourse has stirred up a lot of emotion and distrust of people from different parties, different religions, and belief systems. That the LDS church has been a vocal supporter of Prop 8 and has encouraged members to stir up support themselves has made the topic one that is coming up at fellow members' homes as we talk about our own thoughts and wrestle with having to choose to honor those commitments where we promised to support the church leaders, unequivocally, rather than choosing those topics we like a la carte. I've had conversations about Prop 8 with my parents, with my wife, and at friendly gatherings. It's become a can't avoid topic. For some, usually those raised out of state, the request to push forward is easier. For others, usually those of us who have spent a lot of time in the Bay Area and have close gay friends, the interpersonal conflict is very real.

As Mormons, we believe strongly in what we call "free agency". We have the option to choose between what's seen as right and wrong. Nobody can force us to act in accordance with commandments given by God, or to follow, to the letter, the requests from our church leaders. For those of us who have to make this choice, by supporting Prop 8, we risk telling our gay friends and left-leaning peers that we've voted to take away something from them that is beautiful and wonderful, and for reasons we may not fully ever know until our Earthly lives are finished.

Can public endorsements from Apple and Google, two of the most respected tech names on the planet, be enough to overcome one's religious beliefs? I think it's absolutely important that both institutions show support for their gay employees, and that they, as companies, are doing the right thing. If I were running those companies, it's what I would do.

I don't have a crystal ball saying what's going to happen come November. Given California's history, and the public polls showing a dead heat, I would bet Prop 8 is going to pass. As I told a close gay friend earlier this summer, the community always gets "so close" to having full marriage rights, only for something to come and take it away. It seems at times inevitable that they may never have the identical privilege, thanks to a majority's opposition. But for those who are calling the opposing side bigoted and full of hate, it's far from that simple. I just wish we knew, with clarity, the right thing to do.

What are your thoughts? Is it possible to take something so volatile and find common ground when the positions seem so entrenched and opposed?