Politics does make strange bedfellows, especially when you add sex, religion and a little historical perspective.
One of the delicious ironies of the current political campaign concerns the role of the Mormon church in the California Defense of Marriage crusade, also known as the "Knight Initiative."
Proposition 22 states, in its entirely, that "only marriage between a man and woman is valid or recognized in California." It is on the March 7 ballot as a rear-guard action against persistent attempts to legitimize same-sex marriage in church and state.
If one takes a somewhat longer view, the most notorious sexual outlaws in American history are not today's gay rights' crusaders, but the founding fathers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or the Mormon church.
Joseph Smith Jr., the original Mormon prophet, was fomenting a radical revolution in American religion and sexuality when he was imprisoned in an Illinois jail and assassinated by a mob in the summer of 1844. He was also running for president and controlled an armed militia of approximately 3,500 men.
During his lifetime, Smith publicly denied allegations of widespread polygamy in his sect. Today, it's widely acknowledged that Smith took at least 28 wives, including the spouses and teenage daughters of his Mormon brethren. His successor, Brigham Young, brought the persecuted polygamous sect to the Utah wilderness and for decades continued the practice of "plural marriage" in open defiance of Congress. Officially, the church ended the practice of polygamy in 1890, as a condition to get Utah admitted to the union as a state.
"The rest of the country's reaction against polygamy rose to a crescendo of near hysteria," writes Richard and Joan Ostling in their new book, "Mormon America."
"This was the Victorian age, the era when the monogamous family became enshrined as the bulwark of civilization." What a difference a century makes.
Today, the current "president, prophet, seer and revelator" of the Mormon church has put the full force of his office behind the California Defense of Marriage Act, declaring the "traditional family" to be "the fundamental unit of society."
Three Sundays ago, on January 16, a statement from church president Gordon Hinckley was read in every Latter-day Saint congregation in the state, urging more than 750,000 California Mormons to "redouble their efforts" to pass Prop. 22.
"You are contributing your time and talents in a cause that in some quarters may not be politically correct, but which nevertheless lies at the heart of the Lord's eternal plan for His children," Hinckley told the flock. Earlier pleas for individual Mormons to write checks to the Prop. 22 campaign appear to be paying off. As of December 31, the Defense of Marriage forces had raised $4.8 million from 15,800 donors, about twice as much as the "No on Knight" campaign had collected.
In previous campaigns against same-sex marriage in Alaska and Hawaii, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has publicly and collectively contributed as a major financial supporter to those efforts. In California, the emphasis on individual, private Mormon donations makes it hard to trace where the money comes from, but some estimate that half the Prop. 22 money may be from members of the Mormon church.
Larger churches, including the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, are also putting their financial resources and moral authority behind Prop. 22. On the other side of the cam paign, individual bishops and regional units of more liberal denominations, such as the Episcopal and the United Methodist churches, have joined with gay rights groups to fight the Knight Initiative.
But the church to watch in the Prop. 22 crusade is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormon church leaders call their shots, and they haven't gotten this politically involved since their holy war against the feminist Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s.
They have the cash. According to the Ostlings' impressive study, the Mormons are by far the richest religion per capita in the United States, with more than $25 billion in assets and $5 billion in annual church income. But perhaps more importantly, they have the commitment. While they've rapidly become a major world faith with more than 10 million members, the Latter-day Saints retain the intensity and dedication of a new religious movement. When their prophet speaks, their people listen.