The Yes-on-8 bus--let’s call it the Straight Talk Express--has been wending its way through California, traversing areas both red and blue, with stops for a couple of events a day. I caught up with it last Friday at a noontime rally in South Los Angeles, where a crowd of about 200 people was being urged by a speaker to “civilly, lovingly, go out and educate our friends, family, and neighbors” on why they should support Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that would amend California’s constitution to define marriage as a union of man and woman.

Hosting the event from a makeshift stage was Ron Prentice, chairman of ProtectMarriage.com, the umbrella group behind the campaign for Proposition 8. “This isn’t about love between two adults,” he reminded the crowd. “This is about the next generation.” Prentice, a gray-haired but fit-looking man, is the founder and head of the California Family Council, an organization tied to James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. And for this campaign, he’s working closely with Frank Schubert and Jeff Flint, two of the state’s most formidable political strategists. So far, Schubert and Flint and the rest of the Yes on 8 crowd have enjoyed surprising success. A few months ago, the proposition appeared to be headed for an easy defeat. Today, experts give it near-even odds of passing.

After the rally, I spoke to Prentice outside the Straight Talk and asked how the bus tour had come about. “Our campaign management team has never seen this strong of a grassroots response on any issue,” he told me. “So the thought was, if we’re going to have that strong kind of a grassroots effort, we might as well go thank them in person.” That seemed very polite. As I left, I thanked Prentice, who likewise thanked me. I was soon stopped by another gray-haired man, equally polite, who asked for my affiliation and name and then broke into a broad smile. “Hi T.A., I’m Mark Jansson, and I’m just delighted that you talked to Ron,” he said, shaking my hand. I handed him my card. “That’s great,” he affirmed. “I appreciate that very much. Thanks for coming out. I appreciate it.”

For culture warriors on the Yes side of Prop 8, such elaborate courtesy appears to be the prevailing stylistic approach. Perhaps that’s because pretty much everyone today has family and friends who are gay. Or perhaps it’s because if your goal is to forcibly annul about 11,000 marriages, you’re better off doing it with a smile. Beneath the surface, though, the campaign has hardly been so genteel. Last Thursday, the Associated Press reported that businesses that have donated to “No on 8” have received letters from ProtectMarriage.com. “Make a donation of a like amount to ProtectMarriage.com which will help us correct this error,” it says. “The names of any companies and organizations that choose not to donate in like manner to ProtectMarriage.com but have given to Equality California will be published.” Among the four signers of this letter are Ron Prentice and Mark Jansson.

That good manners should conceal a bare-knuckled approach in the shadows is hardly surprising, because the debate over same-sex marriage doesn’t really revolve around reasoning, but around premises. If you consider homosexuality to be sinful and socially corrosive, then it follows that same-sex marriage earns your disapproval. On the other hand, if you consider homosexuality to be no different from heterosexuality in moral terms, then you’ll find it hard to reason your way to a ban on same-sex marriage. The tension for proponents of Proposition 8 is that they believe homosexuality to be immoral, but they know it’s politically counterproductive in California to say so. So the challenge becomes how to say it without saying it.

This tension was especially pronounced when less-polished speakers--like, say, Marvin Perkins, a forty-ish African American introduced as a “community leader”--took the microphone at the rally. “They’re trying to compare this to the black struggle for civil rights and to interracial marriage,” Perkins told the crowd. “And it’s like, there were no civil unions for black and white couples, so, you know, you don’t have a leg to stand on.” If such reasoning caused some puzzlement--was he saying that civil unions would be sufficient for mixed-race couples?--Perkins had another argument for the crowd to consider. “I was talking to a gay friend of mine, and I said, ‘What’s the story? Come on. You have civil unions. Why are you pushing this?’ And they said, ‘Marvin, it’s simply recruiting. We love to recruit.’” It struck me as a testament to Marvin’s magnetism that he was able to elicit such candor from his close gay friends about the recruiting conspiracy.

As curious a scene as the South Los Angeles rally was, however, it still seemed pretty tame compared to what else has been going on in the Yes on 8 campaign. Last week, The Los Angeles Times carried a report of a mega-church from the town of La Mesa (not far from San Diego), where several dozen supporters of Proposition 8 have been fasting and praying for two weeks, subsisting on VitaminWater and Jamba Juice smoothies. “I am asking for rains of revival to open up over California,” one told the Times. Other churches, though not quite at the Jamba stage, have still been strikingly adamant about the task at hand. In Fresno, Father Geoffrey Farrow was stripped by the Catholic Church of his post, salary, and benefits after voicing opposition to the ban on same-sex marriage.

And, not surprisingly, the religious right has been at the heart of the Yes effort. Among the notable players have been Michigan multimillionaire Elsa Prince Broekhuizen, a major funder of the religious right, who has donated $450,000 to the campaign. (She is the mother of Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater Worldwide.) Also on board is bestselling author and pastor Rick Warren, who emailed parishioners to let them know that God, presumably following the news, “has spoken clearly” in favor of Proposition 8. Mormon involvement has been particularly notable. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that up to 40 percent of the $25.5 million raised for Proposition 8 has come from members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints*. The Church also appears to be taking a leading role in the ground game. At Friday’s rally, the ladies in charge of the booth selling signs and tee-shirts were LDS, as were numerous audience members. Still, perhaps to guard against anti-LDS prejudice, the church is by all appearances trying to play its role quietly. Only later did I discover, for instance, that Marvin Perkins, the “community leader,” is also something more unusual: an African-American Mormon--and one who appears to be very active in church outreach.

Meanwhile, opposition to Prop 8 has been far less organized. “Incompetent” has been a frequently employed adjective among bloggers assessing its efforts, particularly in terms of messaging. “I had considered giving money,” writes one, but, “what the ‘No’ folks need is a better narrative.” And it hasn’t helped that San Francisco’s mayor, Gavin Newsom, came through for the Yes forces with the single most effective sound bite of the campaign. “The door’s wide open now,” Newsom boasted to a crowd in May, after the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage. “It’s going to happen, whether you like it or not.” Proposition 8 supporters have spent around $10 million on television spots highlighting Newsom’s taunts.

As the rally wound down, Mark Jansson took the microphone and reminded the crowd of the warm feelings behind Proposition 8. “We want to love our neighbors,” Jansson said. “We don’t want to be told how to treat everybody. We want to do that of our own free will.” Afterwards when I spoke to some of those in the audience, sentiments were expressed a little more plainly. Monica Gates, a 34-year-old who was eating lunch at a picnic table with her sister (who did not wish to give her name), described herself as a Christian (“Evangelist Christian,” her sister clarified) and a Bush supporter, and she said that the country urgently needed to return to God. “We were talking about how in the Bible, God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah," Gates told me. "I don't know if you're familiar with the story. There was a lot of immorality going on there, and it just seems like our country's headed right in that direction." After what I'd been hearing from the Yes on 8 professionals, I preferred Gates' candor. In any case, with the polls dead-even and little indication as to how they'll break, both of us have good reason to be alarmed.

T. A. Frank is an editor at the Washington Monthly and an Irvine Fellow at the New America Foundation.

*Correction: The original article stated that up to 40 percent of the money for Yes on 8 had come from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In fact, that amount came from members of the church.


By T.A. Frank