Last November, Jay Pimentel began hearing that people in his neighborhood were receiving letters about him. Pimentel lives in Alameda, Calif., a small, liberal-leaning community hanging off Oakland into the San Francisco Bay. Pimentel, who is a Mormon, had supported Proposition 8, the ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage. And that made him a target. "Dear Neighbor," the letter began, "Our neighbors, Colleen and Jay Pimentel" and it gave their address "contributed $1,500.00 to the Yes on Proposition 8 campaign. NEIGHBORS SHOULD BE AWARE OF THEIR NEIGHBORS' CHOICES." The note accused the Pimentels of "obsessing about same-sex marriage." It listed a variety of local causes that recipients should support "unlike the Pimentels."
Pimentel, a lawyer and a lay leader in the small Mormon congregation in Alameda, is markedly even-keeled. Yet the poison-pen note still steams him, even though in May the California Supreme Court validated Prop 8 as constitutional. He is bothered less by the revelation of his monetary contribution, which he stands by, than the fact that the letter's author didn't bother to find out that every other Saturday for 15 years, he or someone else from Alameda's 184-member Mormon ward has delivered a truckload of hot meals to the Midway Shelter for Abused and Homeless Women and Children one of the organizations the Pimentels allegedly wouldn't support. "The church does a lot of things in the community we don't issue press releases about," he says. "And when people criticize us, we often just take it on the chin. I guess you could say I'm not satisfied with the way we're seen."
Across the country, that's the dilemma facing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. With 13 million members worldwide (by its own count), the LDS is the fourth largest church in the country, the richest per capita and one of the fastest-growing abroad. The body has become a mainstream force, counting among its flock political heavyweights like former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid, businesspeople like the Marriotts and entertainers like Glenn Beck and Twilight novelist Stephenie Meyer. The passage of Prop 8 was the church's latest display of its power: individual Mormons contributed half of the proposition's $40 million war chest despite constituting only 2% of California's population. LDS spokesman Michael Otterson says, "This is a moment of emergence."
But that emergence has its costs. Even as Mormons have become more prominent, they have struggled to overcome lingering prejudices and misrepresentations about the sources of their beliefs. Polls suggest that up to half of Americans would be uncomfortable with a Mormon President. And though the Prop 8 victory was a high-water mark for Mormon political advocacy, it also sparked a vicious backlash from gay-rights activists, some of whom accused Mormons of bigotry and blind religious obedience.
The LDS regards such charges as the product of ignorance. It sees itself as primarily apolitical; on issues on which it has taken a stand, the church's positions have been roughly consistent with other conservative faiths. But Mormon activism, when it occurs, does differ from the American norm in significant ways, because of both the dominating role played by LDS President and Prophet Thomas Monson and the church's remarkable electoral cohesion. After the California Supreme Court's ruling to uphold Prop 8, gay-rights groups announced their intent to return same-sex marriage to the California ballot in 2010, almost challenging the Mormons to respond. By championing the California traditional-marriage initiative so forcefully and successfully the first time, the Mormon church has stepped onto America's next big cultural battleground. But in figuring out if it should pick up the gauntlet again, the Mormons, who feel they have so much else to offer, must consider whether the issue is becoming a referendum on Mormonism itself.
What Mormons Believe
"Our Message for the World," says M. Russell Ballard Jr., one of the 14 apostles just under Monson, "is that we are His children, we lived with Him before we came here ... we're striving to keep His commandments so that when we die we can be entitled to receive all the blessings that the Heavenly Father has for His children." Ballard adds emphatically, "People like to make it complex. But it's really pretty simple."