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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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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.