Why We Should Have Tolerated Mormon Polygamy

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6381503711_3c8b2d4117_bThe memo is going about among Christian religious bloggers that one of the next developments in the culture wars that we should apparently worry about is plural marriage, otherwise known as polygamy.

Naturally, this remains a highly charged political issue because many Christians still cling to the dangerous idea that secular governments should be entrusted with defining and regulating marriage. For Catholics like myself, this assertion is all the more ridiculous, since for us, marriage isn’t a mere custom, but a sacrament on a par with holy orders or baptism. The idea that the government should be regulating who can be ordained a priest or who can be baptized is of course a non-starter, and anyone who can escape his grade-school civics brainwashing can see that regulation of marriage is equally invalid.

The Catholic hierarchy, however, gave up much of its credibility on the issue decades ago when it threw in the towel on no-fault divorce and accepted the government’s proposition that “marriages” can be formed and dissolved with a few strokes of a pen. In terms of coercive state power, people should be of course free to enter into whatever contracts they like on whatever terms they like. But the state’s definition of marriage since the adoption of no-fault divorce is so contrary to the Catholic definition of marriage, as to render little doubt about the fact that there is no meaningful moral connection between government-defined “marriage” and the real thing for any serious believer.

The recent move to define unions between people of the same sex is not revolutionary, but is simply the natural next step in the no-fault divorce debate. (What was revolutionary was the handing over of marriage to secular state authorities for regulation.) If the state can define a divorced and re-married person as “married” (something the Catholic hierarchy apparently accepts, contrary to Catholic interpretation of the scriptures) then why not define two men as “married”? There’s not a major legal leap here, but simply an extension of the idea that the state can define marriage.

Polygamous marriage will of course be able to build on exactly the same trend. It’s hard to see why this should require much of a fight at all on the part of the polygamists. Clearly, the vast majority of Americans accept that a person can marry multiple times as long as it’s done one after another. There is indeed no limit beyond the natural limitations of life span and sound mind as to how many spouses a person can have in the minds of most Americans. Since we’ve already established that having multiple living spouses is already perfectly acceptable, why not take the next step to simply allowing multiple spouses at one time? It’s hard to find a morally significant difference between the two propositions.

Indeed, it would be interesting to be lectured by people who accept the concept of serial marriage, but who, for whatever reason, are now outraged by the idea of simply taking on the same number of spouses at one time. Similarly, some advocates of gay marriage also oppose the legalization of plural marriage. Ridiculously, the Equality Network of Scotland, a pro-gay-marriage group, denounced critics who pointed out that the legalization of gay marriage could be compared to plural marriage and other arrangements. Apparently for some within the gay marriage lobby, once you get what you want, it should be denied to everyone else.

Historically speaking, the matter of legal polygamy is even more interesting, since if Americans had ever had any actual respect for the United States constitution, polygamy would have been legal in at least one US state since the nineteenth century.What actually happened during the Mormon-polygamy episode, however, established that it is fine to persecute religious minorities in the United States.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as it is called by its members, and which the rest of us know more commonly as Mormonism, was founded by Joseph Smith in the 1820s in what is now called by historians the “Burned Over District” of upstate New York where a variety of new religious sects and uopian movements were founded. Smith introduced plural marriage to the religion possibly as early as the 1830s, but it wasn’t until the 1850s, after the Mormon flight to what is now Utah, did polygamy become a publicly-known and often-practiced part of Mormon society. Brigham Young, who lead the Mormon church following the murder of Joseph Smith, is of course notable for having 51 wives.

While in Utah, the Mormons kept to themselves, and even if taking into account the Mountain Meadows massacre, it’s hard to argue that the Mormons were more badly behaved than other groups of people on the frontier.  Nonetheless, the Mormon religion, regarded then as now by most Christian groups as a polytheistic religion,  wasn’t winning many friends back east. After the 1850s, the animosity was continually fueled by the moral outrage among most Americans about plural marriage in Utah. Lurid stories about the treatment of the plural wives (some true and some not true) were spread among the American population. In places like Denver and other western cities, feminist reformers and others set up what we would today call “safe houses” for women who fled their plural marriages.

The territory including what is now Utah became US territory after 1848, and at that point began a decades-long history of small-scale military meddling and widespread legal meddling in Utah by the U.S. government, much of it justified by a commitment among easterners to stamp out polygamy. By the 1860s, the Congress began passing a series of anti-polygamy laws targeting Mormons. The 1862 Anti-Bigamy act outlawed polygamy in all US territories. Lincoln, at the time, was busy invading other parts of north America and never attempted to enforce the law. Even by the 1860s, it was clear that Utah would never be admitted to the Union as a state until the government of Utah (run by Mormons, of course) outlawed polygamy.

In 1882, the US House of Representatives refused to seat a non-voting delegate from Utah who was a polygamist, and new acts of Congress in the 1880s forbade polygamy and even authorized the seizure of Mormon property if the Mormons persisted in tolerating or encouraging polygamy.

Brigham Young had declared that if abandoning polygamy was a condition of statehood, then Utah would never be granted statehood. Thus, the persecution would have likely continued indefinitely had the the new leader of the Mormon church, Wilford Woodruff, not decided one day that God told him that polygamy was no longer a central doctrine of the church and would be banned. Utah was admitted to the Union as a state not long afterward.

Now,  it’s hard to see what constitutional or moral authority the Congress ever had to seize Mormon property and deny statehood (and thus legal representation) to Utah residents over the matter of their chosen type of marriage. Certainly, nowhere in the constitution is there anything about marriage, nor is it mentioned in the enumerated powers of Article I. Nor did the framers, when meeting in 1787, ever discuss the proper role of the US government in regulating marriage.

Defenders of this type of federal meddling will point to the fact that by the 1860s, it had been legally established that the US government would directly regulate and legislate on all matters in US territories that were not in states. This is likewise a pretty unconvincing argument since the US constitution authorizes neither the annexation of huge tracts of land for direct administration by the US Government (as occurred following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848) nor does it authorize federal regulation of activities such as marriage that fall well outside the scope of anything mentioned among the powers of the federal government in the constitution.*

Had Americans of the nineteenth century been serious about respecting the rule of law and the US constitution, or even the concept of self-determination, they would have accepted that a group of people living far away should have just been allowed to define marriage as they saw fit. Sending out military detachments to make people practice marriage they way the Congress says smacks of the very worst type of imperialism, so who can be surprised that the persecution of the Mormons (along with the early conquest of the West in general) helped set the stage for decades of federal activism that followed, including the oppression of Southerners, plains Indians, Mexicans, Chinese, and others.

It’s hard to imagine that had the US government actually respected its own constitution and allowed the polygamists to exist in peace in the wilds of Utah, that it would have ushered in the apocalypse, and it must be said that anyone who today makes excuses for the persecution of the Mormons then, likewise makes excuses for the persecution of religious minorities today. Those who decry modern federal intolerance of their own religious beliefs should think twice about a tacit acceptance of persecution of others in the past.

Indeed, had Americans erred on the side of respecting local customs and social arrangements, as well as deferring to political decentralization, it would have been very much to our advantage today. Had freedom been allowed to prevail in those days, and a precedent of tolerance had won the day, it’s far less likely that today we’d be facing federal meddling on every matter from contraception to marriage with federal judges handing down decisions telling us for whom we must bake cakes or that local and state laws about marriage are “unconstitutional” based on the idea that every tiny aspect of life can and should be regulated by the feds.

But that’s not how it worked out. The defenders of marriage in the days of yore decided that one’s idea of marriage is properly regulated with guns and bayonets, and the idea has certainly stuck. Now we’ve been hoisted on our own petards, and we have the nineteenth century’s guardians of decency to thank for it.

[Photo credit.]


* I should note that I do not view the US Constitution as the end-all-be-all of defining appropriate state powers. However, to the extent that it reflects eighteenth-century ideals of self-determination, it can be a useful starting point in discussing issues like religious freedom and state action in the United States.

10:05 am on March 8, 2014