Gay marriage, the “polygamy” of 20th century America

Speaking of polygamy (see my recent post), there was a very interesting article by Cathleen Kaveny in Commonweal  last year tracing the parallels between our controversies today over the place of gay marriage in society and the debate over polygamy in 19th century America (i.e., before the Mormon Church abandoned the practice).

I note for the record that, contrary to possible appearances, polygamy is not a preoccupation of mine.  I found this article when I happened to investigate a peculiar referring link from Google in my web traffic stats. (Note: I don’t control how people find my blog through search engines.  Don’t blame me for their crazy choice of keywords.)

Anyway, it’s a stimulating read. 

I found the anecdote about "coab hunts" to root out polygamous families particularly thought-provoking (see text in bold below).  It’s worthy of the Taliban, though such a sensationalistic comparison is ultimately unfair given the religious norms of the era.  And, as is usually the case when people suddenly get serious about cracking down on vice, it’s women and children who bear the brunt of it while the male perpetrators blend into the woodwork.

The article also gives you a sense of how religiously conservative America was at the turn of the century, at the very same time that Continental Europe was busy burying God.  Only a generation later, you had the  Prohibition Era (which grew out of the earlier Temperance Movement), for example.

The US must’ve seemed prudish to European sophisticates at the time.  I once read that a turn-of-the-century French diplomat was so dismayed at being posted to Washington,  then perceived (perhaps rightly, at least relatively speaking) on the Continent as a dull backwater of bland food and puritanical hangups, that he actually killed himself.  (Just imagine the misery of sybarite Left Bank Parisian forced to host dry soirees in Washington during Prohibition.  Quelle horreur! )

You also see what kind of political pressure the Mormons were under and the prejudices they faced, with the US government treating the Church like an organized crime syndicate.  In some respects, it’s reminiscent of the treatment of Muslims and Muslim organizations in post-9/11 America.  (Times have sure changed, though.  I pity the fool who picks a fight with the Mormon Church today…)

Commonweal: Remember the Mormons: thinking about the nature of Marriage

As Richard Van Wagoner describes in his fascinating book, Mormon Polygamy (Signature Books), Joseph Smith Jr., the founder of Mormonism, appears to have practiced polygamy from the early 1830s, although he did not announce his "Revelation on Celestial Marriage" until 1843. According to Mormon theology, polygamy was no mere alternative lifestyle choice; it was an essential aspect of the divine plan, to be set aside by the faithful at their eternal peril. To say that the world did not applaud Smith’s theological revelation would be an understatement. The 1856 Republican Party platform denounced slavery and polygamy as "the twin relics of barbarism."

In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Act, which made bigamy a criminal offense. Subsequent legislation not only attempted to stamp out polygamy, but also tried to destroy the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. "Unlawful cohabitation," easier to prove than polygamy, was made a crime. "Cohab hunts" were conducted on a regular basis, forcing polygamous men to abandon their wives and children to go underground. Polygamists were excluded from juries, deprived of the right to vote, and denied any "place of public trust, honor, or emolument." Wives were forced to testify against their husbands in polygamy trials. Children of plural marriages were disinherited. The Mormon Church itself was stripped of its status as a law-abiding corporation and treated almost as a criminal conspiracy. According to Van Wagoner, the church finally capitulated to the government’s unrelenting pressure in 1890, when its leader announced that he "had sought the will of the Lord, and the Holy Spirit had revealed that it was necessary for the church to relinquish the practice of that principle for which the brethren had been willing to lay down their lives."

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