April 1, 2013

Polygamy and Gay Marriage: A Reflection on “Non-Traditional” Marriage


by Konden Smith 

This past week, the Supreme Court has heard two historic cases concerning gay marriage, furthering the intensity of it as a national debate. Jeff Wilson has recently noted that it was in the American West that we see the “earliest religious recognitions of same-sex partnerships.” Interestingly, it was also in the West that we see the first significant argument against traditional marriage (that of “one man and one woman”) as the only viable alternative for American citizens. This fight came from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka. Mormons) as they pled for the country to tolerate their practice of plural marriage. Although the church today has taken a strong public stand against gay marriage, this early Mormon struggle for non-traditional marriage offers an important (if not ironic) contribution to the discussion.

Throughout the nineteenth century, prominent Americans looked to Mormonism and its open practice of non-traditional marriage as a national embarrassment and a direct threat to the integrity of the divinely established institution of the family, and as such, was a direct threat to the nation itself. “I must only beg,” spoke historian Philip Schaff to his German audience in 1854, “in the name of my adopted fatherland, that you will not judge America in any way by this irregular growth.” Just a few years later, American Colonel Patrick Connor argued for the “annihilation of this whole people [of Mormonism].” “If the present rebellion [Civil War] is a punishment for any national sin, I believe it is for permitting this unholy, blasphemous, and unnatural institution to exist almost in the heart of the nation[.]” 

Considered “unnatural,” polygamy was thought to encourage sexual promiscuity and cause birth deformities. The first legal test for Mormons came in the Supreme Court case Reynold’s vs. US (1878). In citing religious liberty, the Mormons claimed that the state had no right to criminalize non-traditional marriages. The Court explained however that the founding fathers “never intended” for religious freedom to hurt innocent women and children through unorthodox marriage, and as such, the government had the right “to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order.” Establishing it to be the function of government to encourage “religion” and “morality,” the Court criminalized polygamy. Therefore, in order to protect the ideal family, the government ensured the breakup of non-traditional ones. 

At the height of anti-polygamy agitation, Mormon leaders wrote an official protest, complaining that the 1882 Edmunds law, which helped define marriage as between one man and one woman, as oppressive and severe. President Grover Cleveland, upon receiving a copy of this protest, remarked, “I wish you out there could be like the rest of us.” Mormon leaders publicly shot back: “We are inconsiderately asked to rend our family relations and throw away our ideas of human freedom, political equality and the rights of man, and ‘to become like them.’” They then challenged, “Be like them for what?” “It means that E pluribus unum is a fiction; it means that we tamper with and violate the grand palladium of human liberty, the Constitution of the United States and substitute expediency, anarchy, fanaticism, intolerance and religious bigotry for those glorious fundamental principles of liberty, equality, brotherhood, human freedom and the rights of man.” The Church was emphatic: “We cannot do it….We cannot and will not lay aside our fealty to the nation at the bidding of political demagogues, religious fanatics or intolerant despots.” 

As part of this protest in support of unorthodox marriage, Mormon leaders arranged for U.S. flags on government buildings throughout Salt Lake City to be hung at half mast on Independence Day. With widespread national outrage, the Mormon leaders defended the half mast: “A condition of affairs exists in this Territory which, when understood, every lover of human rights must condemn; and in behalf of ourselves, in behalf of our wives and children, in behalf of the Constitution of the United States, and in behalf of the principles of human rights and liberty in this land and throughout the world, we enter our solemn protest against such iniquitous acts as are being perpetrated here.” According to the Court, however, few crimes were “more pernicious to the best interests of society,” and to not punish them “would be to shock the moral judgment of the community.” The theme was established: marriage between “one man and one woman” was divinely ordained, and any unconventional form of marriage was an affront toward God and a threat against peace and social order. 



Mormon leaders rejected such campaigns as an attempt by the US government to enforce, from the “pulpit of our nation,” a particular sexual and theological “orthodoxy.” Men had the right of forming family bonds and worshiping God according to their conscience, “despite the Supreme Court decisions, despite the action of Congress, despite the expressions of pulpit and press.” This was more than a battle over religious liberty, but instead, “we are fighting the battles of religious liberty for the entire people; it might be said, for the entire world.” Mormons fought for the freedom to establish their own family bonds, however immoral others imagined it to be. Even after Mormons officially ended polygamy, efforts arose to constitutionally define marriage as between “one man and one woman.” Mormons charged that such efforts came from “sectarian ministers of the nation” and were “unjust and uncalled for.” 

In looking at these early contests, there are many parallels between gay and plural marriage. For both, opposition comes largely from theological concerns rather than empirical evidence. For early Mormon leaders, at stake were not just their families, but principles of liberty to determine those relationships according to their own conscience and their own sense of divine morality. Importantly, it was not a national departure from “Christian marriage” that caused Mormon leaders to threaten God’s wrath on the nation, but rather the imposing of a majoritarian familial morality on the rest of the nation. 

4 comments:

Jancis M. Andrews said...

Regarding polygamy, the popular term for a man taking multiple "wives:" there is now plenty of "empirical evidence" in the research papers written by social scientists to show that polygamy harms women and their children. This ancient practice reduces women to second-class citizenship, not equal to the male....where is the equality in one man collecting women as if they were concubines for his harem, so that he can enjoy a sex fest every night with a different partner while the women are obliged to remain faithful to him, and take their turn for his sexual attentions as if they were cows lining up to be serviced by a bull? As well, only the first, legal wife and her children are legally entitled to share in the man's life insurance, health and dental insurance, pensions and tax benefits etc. The remaining women are on their own and they and their children have no legal recourse and can face poverty if the man dies. These are among the reasons that on November 23, 2011,Chief Justice Robert Bauman of BC Supreme Court, ruled that S. 293 CC, proscribing polygamy is constitutional in that polygamy is an anti-social act, contravening the equality rights of women, impoverishing their children, and setting poorer men against richer men who can afford to collect more women..... Nature has not made even two women for every one man, therefore each polygamist male is robbing his brothers of the chance for a wife and family of their own. Look the case up on the Internet. Polygamy comes from the dark ages when women had no rights whatsoever and were considered property. Time to kick it into the garbage can of history! The year is 2013 AD, not 2013 BC, and women in the First World -- although, sadly, not in the Third World -- are now legally men's equals.

Jancis M. Andrews said...

Regarding polygamy, the popular term for a man taking multiple "wives:" there is now plenty of "empirical evidence" in the research papers written by social scientists to show that polygamy harms women and their children. This ancient practice reduces women to second-class citizenship, not equal to the male....where is the equality in one man collecting women as if they were concubines for his harem, so that he can enjoy a sex fest every night with a different partner while the women are obliged to remain faithful to him, and take their turn for his sexual attentions as if they were cows lining up to be serviced by a bull? As well, only the first, legal wife and her children are legally entitled to share in the man's life insurance, health and dental insurance, pensions and tax benefits etc. The remaining women are on their own and they and their children have no legal recourse and can face poverty if the man dies. These are among the reasons that on November 23, 2011,Chief Justice Robert Bauman of BC Supreme Court, ruled that S. 293 CC, proscribing polygamy is constitutional in that polygamy is an anti-social act, contravening the equality rights of women, impoverishing their children, and setting poorer men against richer men who can afford to collect more women..... Nature has not made even two women for every one man, therefore each polygamist male is robbing his brothers of the chance for a wife and family of their own. Look the case up on the Internet. Polygamy comes from the dark ages when women had no rights whatsoever and were considered property. Time to kick it into the garbage can of history! The year is 2013 AD, not 2013 BC, and women in the First World -- although, sadly, not in the Third World -- are now legally men's equals.

Jordan Elkins said...

The practice of polygamy, especially in 19th Century Mormon and current day FLDS form, has been repeatedly proven to be incredibly destructive to the lives of women and children by the social sciences, this is very true. However, from looking at a pure historically legislative perspective, I feel that the governmental reasoning behind the prohibition of both polygamy and gay marriage, do indeed parallel each other. The U.S. government, in both cases, uses the social normative family structure to dictate moral behavior. It was by chance that the result of polygamist legislation happened to impact society for the betterment. This is because the legislation and sentiments shared by popular culture in the 19th Century, and hence the American government which only changed a few decades ago by-the-way, did not in any way take the impact of polygamy as something that will harm women nor children, after all they were barely people, it was to impose their own moralistic standards and norms at a cultural level.

Konden S. said...

This post was not an apologetic of polygamy or gay marriage. What I did find interesting in light of these comments was that when I first posted this comparison, I had an LDS friend contact me upset that I would compare the two, since one was "obviously harmful." She was fully convinced that gay marriage hurt children and couples. She cited "empirical evidence" of social scientists to show that homosexuality leads to child abuse, incest, pornography, broken homes, etc. What hits me as significant is that the popular fear against both continue to sound so familiar.