Fall 2006, Vol. 9, No. 2

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From the Editor:
The Pope Provokes

Muslims in America

As We Forgive Those...

Polygamy Returns

At Cross Purposes in San Diego

The Passion of the DUI

Maybe the Center Holds After All


Polygamy Returns
Jan Shipps

Think Mormon; think polygamy. That’s how it went in the American mind in the 19th century, when what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints called “plural marriage” was very much in the news.

Then, in 1890, the church announced an official rejection of the practice, and in 1904 absolutely stopped sanctioning it. For almost a century, polygamy seemed to have become a historical artifact, even as many continued to think of it as a distinguishing mark of this very American religious tradition. 

Now the practice is back, and back in the news, with the number of practitioners estimated in the tens of thousands. This year, a fictional dramatization has turned it into a cultural touchstone.

Before the Civil War, polygamy and slavery were known as the “twin pillars of barbarism.” After the war brought an end to the slavery pillar, Congress turned its attention to the one that the nation’s Protestants described as a frightful threat to monogamous marriage and the single greatest danger to the American home. 

Nowadays, such bastions of Protestant purpose as Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, and the National Association of Evangelicals would identify same-sex marriage as that second pillar. So, in a curious turn of the coin, they have come to see Big Love, the well-done and surprisingly popular HBO series about a polygamous family in Utah, as (in the words of one unnamed Internet critic) a “stalking horse for gay marriage rights.”    

Articles in such mainstream media outlets as the Washington Post, the Chicago Sun-Times, the National Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune said much the same thing. In their view, this portrayal of a charming, smart, and successful suburban businessman who happens to be married to three eye-catching females had to be something more than another made-for-cable venue for gratuitous sex.

What else besides an argument for same-sex marriage could the depiction of an unconventional marriage system as normal—and even strangely fulfilling for lots of the people involved—be? 

The creators of Big Love, domestic partners Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer, and the producer, Tom Hanks, are “subtly champion[ing] an expanded definition of marriage and the family,” claimed Los Angeles Times reporter Lynn Smith February 26. Indeed, what was sauce for the gay goose was sauce for the polygamous gander.

In a March 20 Newsweek article, Elise Soukup wrote that “polygamy activists [are] emerging in the wake of the gay marriage movement, adding that “stirrings for the mainstreaming of polygamy have their roots in the increasing legitimizing of gay marriage.” Commenting on this article, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer patted himself on back for having written over a decade earlier that it was “utterly logical for polygamy rights to follow gay rights.” 

The show itself made the connection. In one scene, the powerful and sinister-looking leader of a polygamist compound tells a reporter for the Los Angeles Times that polygamy is comparable to same-sex marriage, suggesting that both are acceptable as alternative forms of marriage.

To be sure, the show offered a devastating depiction of the dark side of plural marriage as it exists in the compound, which is modeled on the ones that are situated on the desolate “Arizona strip” along the northern rim of the Grand Canyon. But Big Love also offers an intriguing portrait of middle- to upper-middle-class suburban plural marriage.

In both settings, the show’s creators (perhaps inadvertently) provide ample support for the view that polygamy privileges men and devalues women—placing them, as Eric Mink wrote in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, in “pro forma soap opera” situations that lead to “petty marital jealousies and comical squabbles raised to the third power.” Apologists for the system disagree, claiming that it frees many polygamous wives from domestic responsibilities and child care, allowing them to develop skills that permit them to function as professional women. 

Trying to signal this as a positive aspect of plural marriage, Olsen and Scheffer put a quotation from a polygamous wife from early Mormon days into the mouth of one of Big Love’s trio of suburban plural wives: “Actually, it works quite well for me. One week out of the month I am a wife and the other three weeks I get to do what I want to do.” 

But actually, that’s not how it works in the drama. Although wife number one is a substitute classroom teacher who gets a permanent position for a year, neither she nor any of the other plural wives in the series is much of anything other than a sex object with very little opportunity to act as a self-sufficient, self-reliant human being. 

Picking up on this portrayal, many of the articles in the national press focused on how the patriarchal order of marriage functions within polygamous families, especially those in isolated areas. On March 10, National Review columnist Catherine Seipp described an “unstable gerontocracy” in which “women and children aren’t the only ones who suffer in the radically polygamous extended families.” Because they fear “vigorous upstart competition,” the “geezers” in charge see to it that “young boys get run off and old men get all the pretty girls.” 

Some balance to this wholly negative view was offered in a March 10 report on NPR by Howard Berkes and a March 28 article in the New York Times by Felicia R. Lee. Speaking with Berkes, the cultivated and well-educated widow of a well known Salt Lake City polygamist says that the show provides “a more realistic view of a polygamous family that lives out in society than people have known.” She adds that polygamy can be “an alternative lifestyle between consenting adults.” At the same time, she joined her sister wives in complaining that Big Love had “too much sex” and not enough religion or humor.  

It’s worth noting that neither the slippery slope from polygamy to gay marriage nor the dark side of patriarchy figure prominently in the articles about Big Love that appeared in newspapers published in the intermountain west. From the Salt Lake Tribune, Deseret Morning News, and Las Vegas Review-Journal, to Utah’s college newspapers and beyond, coverage in Mormonland mainly focused on the extent to which the television drama blurred the distinction between active faithful members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and members of the region’s many “fundamentalist sects.” 

The members of the fictional Henrickson family are depicted as part of “an LDS offshoot.” They refer to themselves as Mormons. “This,” wrote Denver Post film critic Joanne Ostrow  “naturally drives Mormon officials crazy.”

In fact, a disclaimer was broadcast at the end of the first episode indicating that the LDS Church had officially banned the practice of plural marriage long ago and that any member now engaging in the practice would be excommunicated. But since the drama is set in a suburb of Salt Lake City with many scenes played out in a place that is pictured as a polygamous community in the Wasatch Mountains, the connection between fictional fundamentalists and contemporary Latter-day Saints is an important part of the story.

And lest anybody miss the point, the plots of nearly all the episodes are backed up with glorious shots of the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City and of other distinctive LDS buildings. In addition, nearly every script for the series contains references to normal Mormon practices such as avoiding alcohol, caffeinated drinks, and tobacco as well as observations about how the wearing of temple garments signifies Sainthood. Many scripts also include characters portraying sanctimonious LDS church members. 

In short, this television drama associates ordinary Mormons so closely with present-day polygamists that even prior to the broadcast of the show’s first episode, the LDS Church posted a response on its official website. This included an expression of concern for the victims of “child and wife abuse” that are part of “the fringe world of polygamy” and a bewailing of the immoral standards that come through “lazy and indulgent entertainment.”

Clearly, however, it is the “confusion over the continued practice of polygamy” that most troubles the “Brethren” (as the church’s ruling authorities are known to Latter-day Saints). Lamenting how easy it is to brand practically everyone in the Mormon movement with the polygamy mark, the official response—which was quoted almost verbatim in several local newspapers—does its best to establish a boundary firm enough to shut out all the members of the region’s polygamous sects:

“Any Church member adopting the practice today is excommunicated. Groups that continue the practice in Utah and elsewhere have no association whatever with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Most of their practitioners have never been among its members.”

Utah Senator Orrin Hatch echoed his church’s concerns, telling the Salt Lake Tribune, “The show’s producers insist Big Love isn’t about the LDS Church, but they obviously intend for their viewers to make that connection. The show is highly offensive for anyone who truly knows and follows the LDS faith and HBO should be ashamed of how they’ve handled this.”

If the LDS Church worried that Big Love would sow confusion about the practices of ordinary church members when it premiered on March 12, it was surely not happy when, at the close of the show’s first season six weeks later, the FBI added Warren Steed Jeffs to its Most Wanted List. 

Jeffs is the prophet-leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), one of the largest and best known of the communities organized around the belief that Mormonism made a disastrous wrong turn when it discontinued the practice of plural marriage. Accused of battery, child molestation, sodomy, conspiracy, and fraud, Jeffs was made into so high profile a case because, according to the FBI website’s “overview,” there was fear that he would turn out to be a mass murderer—a  “Mormon Manson.” 

He certainly is scary enough. An authoritarian despot, he presides over communities not only in Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah (where he lived in a walled compound), but also in Canada, Texas, and Arizona. With the help of his followers, who believe he is God’s representative on earth, he evaded prosecution for more than two years.

On August 29, Jeffs was arrested in a routine traffic stop north of Las Vegas. He is now in Utah’s Purgatory Correctional Centre awaiting trial on two charges of rape by accomplice for forcing an underage girl to marry an older man. After that legal process is finished, he will be transferred to Arizona to face six counts of performing the marriages of three minors to older men.

Since his arrest, there have been hundreds of stories about Jeffs in the press, to say nothing of cable news, where a few of his faithful followers and a bevy of disgruntled ex-polygamous wives and children have given accounts of the alternative marriage system that Big Love had portrayed as essentially benign. The “escapees” from the system told harrowing stories of the forced marriages of young adolescent girls to men in their 50s and 60s, of the banishment of adolescent males from the communal compounds in order to preserve the advantages of priesthood leaders in the polygamous marriage market, and of the pervasive exploitation of the state welfare system.

These new stories built upon earlier accounts about Jeffs and the FLDS that have been appearing periodically ever since Jeffs succeeded his father as the polygamists’ prophet.  For example, on May 3, 2005,  an extensive story on NPR’s All Things Considered by Wade Goodwyn, Howard Berkes, and Amy Walters reported that “nearly all property” in Hildale and Colorado City was owned by a church trust estimated worth in excess of $100 million and controlled by Jeffs. Former vice-mayor and Colorado City Councilman Richard Hol told Berkes he estimated that Jeffs had more than 50 wives. 

At the end of September, Jennifer Dobner of the AP nicely captured the dilemma of an LDS Church that “can’t seem to shake perceptions that it endorses the practice [of polygamy.” She quoted D. Michael Quinn, a student of Mormon fundamentalism, as saying, “[T]hese people who have extra wives call themselves Mormon. They believe in the Book of Mormon…so it’s inevitable that this linkage is going to be there.”

In ginning up renewed suspicion of all things Mormon, the linkage seemed to threaten the presidential aspirations of outgoing Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a Latter-day Saint who is descended from a polygamous family. In the midst of the initial flurry of media attention to Big Love, syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker told her readers that should Romney decide to seek the Republican nomination in 2008, he would have to deal with “the Mormon Factor.” 

In an extended profile published in the Boston Globe Magazine August 13, Neil Swidey reminded readers that when Romney’s father, Michigan Gov. George Romney, ran for president in 1968, polygamy was hardly mentioned. True, at least one wag wondered whether the presidential residence in a Romney administration would feature “His” and “Theirs” rather than “His” and “Hers” towels. But back then, the Mormon factor that had to be faced was race.

Black men were not permitted to be members of the LDS priesthood until a 1978 revelation to LDS Church President Spencer Kimball made clear that “all worthy men” could be ordained. In the elder Romney’s day, liberals willy-nilly turned Mormons into racists. 

In this election cycle, the younger Romney has sought to puncture any polygamy problem by making sure that the evangelical Protestant base of his party find him orthodox on their understanding of traditional family values. He has gone around the country denouncing his state’s first-in-the-nation legalization of gay marriage and trying at the same time to head off the polygamy question by recognizing that it is bound to come up so he is making fun of it. He insists that marriage is “between a man and a woman—and a woman and woman” He has likewise spoken out strongly against abortion, and (unlike his church) against stem-cell research.

But there are other Mormon factors that could also prove stumbling blocks to a Romney presidential bid. Foremost among them is the theological question of whether Mormonism is, as the LDS Church claims, Christian—or, as most of the rest of the Christian world believes, something else. Evangelicals in particular worry about this, and the likelihood that they will shrink from anointing a candidate they consider a Christian heretic as their favored party’s standard bearer seems a good deal greater than that they will confront him with serious questions about plural marriage.

Look for an ever increasing number of articles that ring the changes on (as Slate put it on October 11) “A Bigger Tent: Why Religious Conservatives Are Ready for a Mormon President,” or (as the Nation put it the day before), “Romney’s 2000 Bid Faces Issue of Faith: Massachusetts’ GOP Governor Has Political Promise, But Voters May Not Embrace a Mormon.”

Then there’s the question of “Mormon power”—the ancient conviction that the LDS Church will game the country’s rules to advance its cause. On October 19, the Boston Globe ran an impressive piece of investigative reporting by Scott Helman and Michael Levenson headlined “Romney camp consulted with Mormon leaders: Eyes nationwide network to aid White House bid.”

Based on interviews and unspecified documents, the story claimed that an effort to promote Romney’s candidacy via his coreligionists was being headed by Jeffrey R. Holland, one of the 12 “apostles” who run the church worldwide. On tap, according to the Globe, was a grass-roots political organization based in alumni chapters of the business school of church-run Brigham Young University.

Meanwhile, polygamy will remain on the nation’s cultural plate. On April 20, an HBO news release said that the Big Love series has been renewed for a second season. Stay tuned.


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