Will Mormons Bring Back Polygamy?
In 1992, literary critic Harold Bloom hazarded a prediction about the future of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in America. He predicted once Mormons increase in numbers and influence, their church would again embrace polygamy, or plural marriage, and force the rest of Americans to accept this.
He saw two roadblocks in the way of this happening. First, there was majority American opinion to grapple with. Second, the modern LDS Church is resolutely opposed to polygamy. The laws of the state of Utah, our one majority Mormon state, reflect the Mormons' anti-polygamous position.
Many people do not realize this, as I found out during our recent presidential election. Over breakfast one morning, a Church Lady type opined that a vote for Mitt Romney was a vote for polygamy. After all, she saw occasional reports on the news about polygamous Mormons. Did we really want more of that under a Romney presidency?
Those aren't members of Romney's Church, I countered. The LDS Church bans polygamy and excommunicates members who engage in the practice. It had been doing so for over 100 years now, so why was this still an issue?
She groped a bit and said that Mormons were at one time polygamous. Wasn't that bad enough? Sure, I said, as long as she was willing to condemn all those polygamous Jewish patriarchs in the Old Testament as well.
Down with Father Abraham!
But there are Mormons and there are mormons. Well after the LDS Church banned the practice in 1890, plenty of unreconstructed Mormons viewed the practice as central to their faith. They continued in defiance of church and secular authorities up to the present day.
Utah has made some halting progress discouraging the polygamists, driving the most public and problematic of them into other more tolerant states, such as Texas. But the phenomenon is too widespread to stamp out completely.
Doug Gibson, an editor for the Ogden, Utah based Standard-Examiner and an LDS member in good standing, explains that "for a long time...there's been a general consensus among most Utahns that you go after polygamists who prey after minors and leave consenting adults alone."
A few of those consenting adults, the unreconstructed non-LDS Mormons who star in the reality show Sister Wives, brought suit against the state of Utah's anti-polygamy laws and last week scored a big victory.
Though Judge Clark Waddoups still retained a ban on bigamy "in the literal sense -- the fraudulent or otherwise impermissible possession of two purportedly valid marriage licenses for the purpose of entering into more than one purportedly legal marriage," he threw out the ban on cohabitation which authorities had used to pressure polygamists. He also argued that the basis of these laws was antiquated and racist.
Gibson guessed based on past experience that "a majority [of Utahns] approve of the judge's ruling."
The reaction of the LDS Church itself to the ruling was muted. The Church-owned Deseret News pointed readers to a new document which restated that while Mormon polygamy had been instituted for a time, it was now forbidden, so don't get any ideas.
Both the ruling and the religious reaction were expected only because the historical terrain has shifted so drastically. The U.S. government at one time ferociously persecuted Mormon polygamists because of their deviation from cultural norms. Now, the norms have shifted.
In the late Nineteenth century, marriage was widely considered the union of one man and one woman for life. In the 1970s, American law jettisoned the "for life" bit. The legal apparatus of the U.S. government is now determined to jettison the "man and woman" part, by embracing gay marriage.
The next logical question was posed by Canadian journalist Colby Cosh. "If there's nothing exceptional about the conjugal relationship between a man and a woman," he asked, "then what's so damn special about the number 'two?'"
He was referring to a polygamy case then pending in British Columbia. The Canadian courts have ruled against the polygamists, so far, but not for any terribly good reason.
In a historical irony seized on by some pundits, well, let's let this headline from the LGBT-flavored website Religion Dispatches tell the story: "LDS Church, US Government Swap Positions on Polygamy."
Several progressive pundits are now writing that polygamy might not be so bad after all, as long as we can temper its excesses, such as the marriage of child brides and the remarriage of widows without their consent.
But these are features, not bugs, of polygamy. Men and women are born in about equal numbers. Polygamy produces an excess of marriageable men and a shortage of marriageable women. Polygamous communities frequently drive out young men and marry off ever younger women to their remaining elders.
The LDS Church knows this, from experience. It will keep on opposing polygamy and gay marriage because they both threaten the mission of the modern Church: the growth of Mormonism through large and stable families.
This sets the Latter-day Saints against the U.S. government with its individualistic legalistic framework toward marriage -- a framework that treats children as accidents of marriage, not the reason for it.
If polygamy ever does come to America as a mass phenomenon, finger John Locke, not Joseph Smith.