The Marriage Trap

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Temple Square.jpgIt is no small irony that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should now be the object of nationwide ire for exercising its ecclesiastical power on behalf of “traditional” marriage. Once upon a time, the church looked to the U.S. Supreme Court to affirm the right of its members to practice marriage according to their own distinctive lights, and had Reynolds v. U.S. gone the other way in 1878, there’s every reason to think that Mormons in good standing would still be committing themselves to bonds of plural matrimony. In the gay marriage wars of the past few years, a standard rhetorical question of many opponents has been that if same-sex marriage is allowed, can polygamy be far behind? You wonder how often that question was voiced by the rank-and-file Mormons canvassing last month on behalf of Proposition 8.
In a conversation Friday, Peggy Fletcher Stack, the longtime Salt Lake Tribune religion reporter who has probably written more stories about the LDS Church than any journalist alive, allowed as how this had not been a very good season for a church that’s highly sensitive to its public image. First there was the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney, which roiled the evangelical dovecotes. Then there was the assault on the Yearning for Zion ranch in Texas that, if it hardly proved a big win for the Texas authorities, served as yet another reminder of Mormon polygamy to a public that may not distinguish too sharply between fundamentalist Mormons and their mainstream cousins. And finally this.
This, of course, the church brought entirely on itself. To be sure, it was part of a coalition of religious institutions promoting Prop. 8, and there’s doubtless a temptation to ask why the much more numerous Catholics and evangelicals haven’t drawn the bulk of the attention. That’s got to be ingrained anti-Mormon prejudice, no? Maybe but maybe not. As we know from the election returns, most Catholics don’t pay much attention to what their bishops say when it comes to voting, and as for evangelicals, there’s no hierarchy that presumes to tell them what to do. It’s a different story when the LDS Church sends out instructions.
There was a lot of shouting yesterday about the need to separate church and state, but under the law religious institutions, like other non-profits, are entitled to advocate for issues they care about without putting their tax exemptions at risk. What they shouldn’t expect to avoid is denunciation and vilification from the other side. As the marriage wars continue, it will be interesting to see whether the famously nice folks in Temple Square decide to make nice or to double down.

  • DeeAnn

    Let’s examine what happened with the Mormons in the 19th century and what’s happening today:
    Mormons wanted to practice polygamy. Society outraged. Mormons driven from state. Governor issues extermination order. Mormons move to Salt Lake Valley and environs. Society still outraged. Mormon men put in prison for practicing polygamy. Mormons continue to practice polgamy, despite persecution. Mormons don’t care if society approves of practice, they just want to be left alone to practice what they believe. Eventually Mormon prophet receives revelation to abandon practice of polygamy.
    Enter today. Homosexuals live together without persecution. No one puts them in jail. None of their rights are taken away. Society basically leaves them alone. Homosexuals are not content with this. They want society’s approval. Society votes down their approval. Homosexuals are angry that society does not approve their relationships.
    I don’t see much of a parallel, do you?

  • L.T.

    Silk assumes polygamy is to the “left” of gay marriage. But Mormons, I’m sure, find polygamous marriage to be far more meritorious than gay marriage. Even I as a non-Mormon have far fewer qualms w/polygamy than w/gay marriage. Many human societies have practiced polygamy; none have practiced gay marriage at all much less as equal to male-female unions. Your “no small irony” just got pretty small. But it’s the pose that counts; cheap snide smuggery against conservatives never fails to arouse the Daily Show crowd predictably enough and win you some cool hipster points.

  • Mark Silk

    I make no such assumption. I would be interested in knowing what Mormons think of plural marriage these days. The LDS church will excommunicate those who practice it.

  • DeeAnn

    I don’t speak for all Mormons, but this Mormon things polygamy is wrong unless God commands it and I don’t see that happening anytime soon. I’m proud of my ancestors who had the faith to practice polygamy. It was difficult not only because of social pressures, but also because it’s a DARN HARD thing to practice. No one that I have ever read about was EXCITED about polygamy. (That includes the men) They did it because they felt it as a commandment.

  • Hannah Rebekah

    In Biblical times, polygamy was considered the first welfare program. I have pondered this when I read that and I tend to think its true. In sickness, old age and death there are others there to take care of you or your children. The same with making a living and the daily needs taken care of. A study was done that stated that women would much rather be one of the wives of a successful man than one wife of a dead beat…or something like that. Most polygamist men were and are successful, maybe to take on other wives he would have to think he could and therefore he is successful. Those men who are worthless want someone to take care of him so there is no way he is going to add to his responsibilities.
    What most don’t realize is that Born Again Evangelicals have in the last 10 or so years started to become polygamist. They have their sites that they prove that polygamy is Biblical…Old Testament and New Testament. They also have dating sites to find sister wives. One of them was on the 700 Club and they are working to have the laws changed. You can find them by Googling Born Again Evangelical Christian Polygamists. They claim that their numbers are about 50,000; more than the RLDS polygamist. They are scattered all over the U.S. Just thought this was so interesting since that is one of the canards of the Anti-Mormons. Too bad they never mention how marrying, divorcing, marrying and divorcing and so on is considered “serial polygamy” since divorce is not Biblical.
    I second the previous posters remarks about his ancestors. It was hard but it shaped them for the better and they bloomed in the desert. When the Mormons headed west many wrote them off and how it would be their demise. Yet, they thrived and raised righteous children of God. I personally feel that this trial of theirs is what got them through their subsequent trials. Family is everything and that is how polygamy was viewed. One early prominent Christian scholar (Benz) noted back then that polygamy was not about the sex as many now days whisper about as though that is so sick…it was about the children…the family.
    As non-Mormon church historian Ernst Benz wrote:
    “Mormon polygamy has nothing to do with sexual debauchery but is tied to a strict patriarchal system of family order and demonstrates in the relationship of the husband to his individual wives all the ethical traits of a Christian, monogamous marriage. It is completely focused on bearing children and rearing them in the bosom of the family and the Mormon community. Actually, it exhibits a very great measure of selflessness, a willingness to sacrifice, and a sense of duty.” (Ernst Benz, “Imago dei: Man as the Image of God,” FARMS Review 17/1 (2005): 223–254)