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.”