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California's Mormons split over gay vote

A bid to ban gay marriage in California has divided the Mormon Church in two - one side favouring a

By now, members of Robert Bennion’s Mormon congregation know exactly what’s on the agenda when the stocky, 57-year-old bishop asks someone to leave the church grounds and walk across the street with him for a quick tête-à-tête. More likely than not, he’s got gays on his mind and a proposition to make.

Don’t worry; it’s not what it sounds. More likely than not, Bennion is about to run both hands through his unruly mop of blond hair, straighten his Dwight Schrute glasses and ask a member (or members) of his congregation to do something that makes him truly uncomfortable: assist with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ campaign to publicise Proposition 8, a measure that would effectively ban gay marriage in California.

The Mormon Church’s foray into politics has put Bennion in one helluva difficult situation. As the head of a Mormon congregation, he is duty-bound to stand against what his faith sees as a threat to traditional family values. But as the older brother of an openly gay man, he has an appreciation for gay rights that most Mormons do not. For Bennion, taking any discussion of Proposition 8 off church property is his way of separating—literally and figuratively—his politics from his faith. From across the street, he hopes his charges can see the difference between Bob the Bishop and Bob the ordinary guy.

“So far I’ve worked very hard to keep this whole thing at arm’s length,” Bennion said. “I see this as purely a political endeavor, which is why I don’t allow any campaigning during church time or on church property. In my mind, it’s possible to be in favor of Proposition 8 without being anti-homosexual.”

While Bennion’s Switzerland impression may seem like on good idea on paper, in reality he’s taken the one position that would make him a target for both sides. His superiors within the church, for example, have repeatedly requested that he get more involved in the issue, but their phone calls are easily ignored and Bennion himself can’t help but smile when the click of a button sends their emails from his inbox to the trash can.

“A lot of the time they don’t come right out and say it, but it’s pretty obvious that they’re talking about me,” said Bennion with a laugh. “I see this as a conflict of interest for me, which is why I refuse to get more involved than I already am.”

Considering how gung-ho some Mormon leaders have been in the fight against gay marriage, it’s easy to see why some of Bennion’s higher-ups accuse him of not pulling his own weight. From Sacramento to San Diego, there have been reports of Bishops publicly and privately questioning the faith of members who are not willing to donate their time or money to Proposition 8. Some moderate Mormons have even found themselves reaching out to the gay community after receiving the metaphorical cold shoulder from their brethren.

“I feel exiled from the church over this issue,” wrote one Mormon blogger. “I want to connect with other church members. If there aren’t any anti-Prop 8 rallies in my area, I think I am going to organise one.”

In spite of his relatively open mind, Bennion’s willingness to take part in the Mormons’ efforts, even as little more than a spectator, has upset his otherwise quiet Santa Monica home. His daughter, a longtime supporter of gay rights, showed her disapproval of his hair-splitting logic by standing up and walking out during a balanced sermon that he felt was designed to do little more than explain the church’s position on same-sex marriage.

“Seeing her walk out was disappointing, mainly because I prepared those remarks specifically with her in mind,” said Bennion, a hint of melancholy showing through his businesslike appearance. “The idea was to be as rational as possible in explaining the church’s position as being sort of middle-of-the-road, but she wouldn’t even hear me out.”

Ironically, one person who hasn’t tried to goad Bennion into taking a stronger stand on either one side of the issue or the other is his openly gay younger brother, Mike, who seems to have no problem with the way Robert is refereeing his ecclesiastical responsibilities and his personal convictions.

Watching the two men interact, most people probably wouldn’t assume they fell from the same family tree. Mike’s dark, meticulously sculpted hair and beard serve as a perfect foil to Robert’s clean-shaven face and barley-colored mane, while the conspicuous gold stud in his left ear looks almost hedonistic in comparison to Robert’s ultra-conservative white shirt and tie ensemble. Upon conversing with them, however, one quickly notes that they share the same quirky sense of humor, the same tendency to laugh just a bit too hard at their own jokes, and the same affinity for the same brand of $50 dollar words often found in books like 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary.

“Mike grew up in the Mormon culture, so I think he has a real appreciation for the pickle that I’m in right now,” said Bennion. “Of the four brothers in our family, he and I have always been the closest. He knows that he’ll always be welcome in my house.”

In talking with Bennion, one gets the impression he sees himself as a referee trying to make sense of a particularly chaotic boxing match.

Mormons, who make up just two per cent of California’s population, have raised nearly half of the $22.8 million collected in support of Proposition 8. Conversely thousands of their fellow church members have asked that their names be removed from church records so as not to be involved with an organisation that is perceived as being anti-gay.

“It’s been a very divisive issue,” admitted Bennion. “It raises a lot of questions to which there aren’t a lot of crystal clear answers, and almost everybody feels like you have to be on one side or the other.”

In the red corner, weighing in at about a half million strong, we have California’s conservative Mormons, who have been carrying the Proposition 8 banner with pride from the get-go, completely certain that they are not only protecting the family but also doing the Lord’s holy work.

In their collective mind, the issue is as cut and dry as David vs. Goliath: it’s God’s will that marriage exist only between a man and woman, and any other possible familial configuration might as well be a nine-foot-tall Philistine in desperate need of a rock between the eyes.

And in the blue corner, wearing the rainbow-colored trunks, we have a group composed of current and former Mormons, all of whom feel that the need for equality among California citizens trumps the Bible-based belief that homosexuality is evil.

Rather than claiming that God is on their side, these freedom fighters deftly ride into battle the high horses of equal rights and personal freedom, determined to make the world safe for those who supposedly want nothing more than to sit around a campfire, hold hands, and sing about peace and harmony.

In spite of their high-minded intentions, those who claim to stand for tolerance sometimes find themselves exhibiting the same narrow-mindedness as their opposition. A man who left the Mormon Church after coming out of the closet posted the following on a “No on 8” website:

“I was going through the list of contributors and…I noticed that two people have died since making their donations, so I suppose that puts us up by two. Every little bit helps!”

Pass or fail, Bennion sees Proposition 8 and the brouhaha surrounding it as merely the first in a series of conflicts between gay rights and religious freedom. The next hot-button issue? Teaching gay sex and/or gay marriage in schools, an issue that has already come to a head in other states where same-sex marriage is legal.

“If that happens, a lot of the religious kids in the state will end up being home schooled, and that’s much worse than gay marriage in my opinion,” said Bennion. “There’s a tribe in my congregation that home schooled all of their kids, and boy did they turn out strange.”

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain