Mitt Romney’s ability to have any air time in the presidential arena baffles me. I only arrived in Boston at the tail end of his governorship, but it was clear that almost everybody in Massachusetts considered him a failure. Now he is running a campaign based on the premise that he hated the majority of the people in the state that he governed.
All that aside, his religious choice to be Mormon has drawn a great deal of attention. Where there are Mormons, there are going to be nagging questions about polygamy.
Personally, I think it really was a miracle that Brigham Young convinced one woman to marry him, much less 52. Have you seen pictures of Young? He wasn’t exactly a prize catch. Only divine intervention saved his sorry ass from being alone in the desert.
Regardless, the LDS Church officially ended polygamy within their church in 1890. In that year, a “miraculous vision” to church leaders conveniently coincided with the Federal government’s threats to seize Mormon properties. God sure had impeccable timing as it also lowered the last hurdle for Utah to become a state in 1896. Yes, even though it was filled with religious extremists who practiced polygamy and wore funny underwear, the U.S. still preferred making it a state over New Mexico. That territory, in the U.S. since 1848, wouldn’t be granted statehood until 1912 because of its Mexican-majority population. Of course, 1912 would also be the same year that Romney’s ancestors would return to the U.S. after fleeing to Mexico to keep up their polygamous ways (Something, btw, that didn’t thrill Mexico).
Romney’s own family tree has a number of, shall we say, deviated branches. One of his great-great grandfathers had twelve wives. His great-grandfather had five wives. They all believed that polygamy was not only right, but actually ordered by God.
One might imagine that such a family history would make Romney a bit more sensitive to contemporary people who wish to change the idea of marriage. On the contrary, Romney sees nothing inconsistent in his own family history and his support of “traditional marriage.” Indeed, he is so comfortable that he even jokes about it, saying “I believe marriage should be between a man and a woman … and a woman … and a woman" (a quip he made on the now infamous Don Imus radio show).
For a religion that really hates the modern gays, Mormons have a rather queer past. I don’t mean queer in the man-on-man sex way (which the nineteenth-century Mormon church clearly didn’t support either). Rather, queer meaning that their sexual practices were defined and denigrated against what was imagined as “normal” (marriage as one woman and one man). In many ways, modern Mormons are still considered queer based on myths and legends about their sexual decisions.
Despite Romney’s attempts to laugh it off, the media is obsessed with polygamy and the Mormon church. Even though the official LDS Church hasn’t condoned polygamy (or “plural marriage”) in over a century, Romney is still fielding questions about it. Seemingly people are expecting that he has a couple extra wives secretly stashed away somewhere or that the whole LDS church is going to announce “gottcha” at any moment on an unsuspecting monogamous public.
Indeed, the U.S. has such a love/hate voyeuristic relationship with Mormon polygamy that HBO has an entire show devoted to the premise. Big Love features a rebel Mormon family that broke off from the LDS to create a polygamous family. Think of it as the modern Brady Bunch. Well, except that Mike’s first wife didn’t die and, instead, became friends with Carol. And Alice serves more than applesauce and pork chops to Mr. Brady.
Do we, though, really still care about polygamy as an issue? Don’t get me wrong. I have a lot of problems with the historical ways that the Mormon church construed polygamy. It was based on a sexist premise that kept women in subordinate positions. I am also certainly horrified by the creepy modern version practiced by “Mormon fundamentalists” that seemingly involves a lot of brainwashing and bartering of children
As just an issue by itself, though, does polygamy still matter? What taboo is at stake anymore? Is it really a major issue for us, as a society, if three or more adults negotiate a mutual relationship (as long as all the parties are honest about it)?
The truth is that many people (of all forms of sexuality) are already organizing their lives in this way. The legal system doesn’t recognize it, but that doesn’t mean it is not their reality. Beyond the most extreme of Christians, few people seem concerned about an individual having multiple sex/romantic partners throughout their lifetime. What is the big deal about having two (or more) at the same time if everybody involved is down with that? If we are really interested in sexual freedom, shouldn’t all adults be able to create the types of relationships that they want? Beyond making inheritance easier, what is the investment in upholding an exclusive notion of marriage?
That aside, I think that radical Christians are spooked by Mormon polygamy because it exposes the arbitrariness of some of their own religious beliefs. Mormons, after all, claimed to be following God’s orders as they pursued their kinky, kinky relationships just as radical Christians claim to be following God's orders to pursue their own sad, unhappy monogamous marriages.
If radical Christians are really interested in defending one-man-one-woman traditional marriage, I say that polygamy might be the key for them. It sounds counterintuitive, but hear me out.
Let’s be honest, hetero people aren’t having great luck keeping their marriages together. Divorce rates are sky-high these days. With polygamy, it could increase their odds that at least one of those unions would stick. It would be like the lotto – You could have a “Quick Pick Five.” By the end of the first decade, I guarantee that only one of those spouses is going to still tolerate you. Eventually it would be whittled down to the one-man-one-woman ratio that Christians believe is critical to civilization as we know it.
Lawyers are the other group that should really support polygamy. If divorce is making them rich now, just imagine how wealthy they would be if polygamy became the rule of law. Each lawyer could build their entire career just following around one polygamist family.
For myself, though, I have no plans to become the gay version of Brigham Young. I am not even sure I could manage 52 friends at the same time, much less finding time for all those spouses. Not to mention all the little annoying things that you have to put up with when you have just one spouse. I can’t imagine coming home and finding that a dozen of my spouses had left their dirty underwear sitting on the floor.