Civics Lesson

Last weekend, we saw evidence—preliminary and tentative, to be sure—that the massive public participation generated by Obama’s Presidential campaign may prove more durable than most of us imagined. Spontaneous demonstrations protesting the November 4th passage of California’s Proposition 8 erupted across the country. (Prop8, for the unaware, amended the California constitution and repealed the right to same-sex marriage).

Large crowds of protestors turned out across California. No surprise there. There were equally spirited turnouts in the nation’s largest cities—New York, Boston, Chicago, Washington D.C. Again, not surprising. But how do we explain demonstrations in places like Peoria, Illinois; Missoula, Montana; Greenville, South Carolina; Grand Forks, North Dakota; Lubbock, Texas; or Little Rock, Arkansas, to list just a few of the more unlikely venues? Even in Indianapolis, approximately three hundred people gathered on a rainy Saturday in front of the City-County Building sporting homemade signs and rainbow umbrellas.

The protestors were not all gay, as evidenced by signs saying things like “Straight but not Narrow” and “If everyone doesn’t have rights, no one does.”  All across America, citizens got off their couches and rallied for equal civil rights for their neighbors, their families and their friends.

With so much opposition, why did Proposition 8 pass?

The New York Times reported on the “11th hour effort that saved the ban,” which ultimately garnered 52% of the vote. According to the Times, “Interviews with the main forces behind the ballot measure show how close its backers believe it came to defeat—and the extraordinary role Mormons played in helping to pass it with money, institutional support and dedicated volunteers.”

Now, religious people have every right to contribute to causes they believe in, and to make their positions known in the public square. Religious crusaders helped end slavery. Churches and religiously-motivated opponents of segregation worked tirelessly in the 1960s to put an end to Jim Crow laws. The more legitimate issue raised by the Times concerned the shady tactics employed  in the guise of religion and morality.

When the campaign began, a clear majority of California voters opposed Proposition 8. When polls in mid-October showed voters continuing to reject the ban, supporters raised enormous amounts of money for advertisements claiming that churches would lose their tax exemptions if they refused to perform same-sex ceremonies, and that elementary schools would be forced to “teach homosexuality” to young children. Both of these claims were demonstrably false. Worse, proponents clearly knew their ads were dishonest. But they were effective.

California is a huge state, and advertising is costly. Opponents of Prop 8 simply didn’t have the resources to effectively counter the distortions, even though Governor Schwarzenegger, Senator Feinstein and the California teacher’s association all cut ads rebutting the charges. In the end, money talked. It was politics as usual.

But then a strange thing happened. Citizens all across America decided to flex the civic muscles they had just discovered they had.

I don’t know what comes next, but it promises to be very interesting.