Fall 2014, Vol. 15, No. 2

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Spiritual Politics
Mark Silk's blog
on religion and politics 


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Table of Contents   

From the Editor:
Religion in the News is Dead! Long Live Religion in the News!

The Contraceptive Mandate Marches On

Hell No, I Won't Go 

Ukraine's Orthodox Breakup        

Marriage is Always Complicated in Utah

Breaking Bad in Burma

Evangelicals Wimp Out on Immigration

Pew on Jew

Zen Master in the Garden

The Pope’s Israel Driveby

Noah: The Movie

The Art of RIN





Marriage is Always Complicated in Utah

by Philip L. Barlow and Scott Marianno

Mormons believe they are “a peculiar people”—arrogating to themselves the King James Bible’s description of the ancient Israelites as a community set apart from their neighbors. The neighbors have often enough agreed, and in their eyes, the foremost emblem of Mormon peculiarity has always been polygamy.

During the latter half of the 19th century, the great Mormon “harem,” as antagonists portrayed the marriage system of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, thrived in the remote confines of the Rocky Mountains, where federal regulation was problematic. By the measurement of Protestants, politicians, and polemicists, each polygamous child deepened the Mormon threat to American ideals.

The nation sought to immunize itself against the Mormon contagion by instigating a legislative and legal battle against the Saints that spanned decades. Bearded and backwards, as journalists from back East saw them, a few Mormons entered the courtroom to plead polygamy’s cause, invoking constitutional protections of religious freedom as well as local sovereignty.

Over three decades, a series of adverse Supreme Court decisions on the Mormon marriage question seemed to provide a definitive answer to, as one commentator saw it, “the whole question of the family” that was “wrapped up in it.” The decisions were accompanied by an onslaught of legislation, incarceration, and national sentiment that culminated in the church’s public renunciation of polygamy in 1890.

Fast-forward to contemporary Mormonism, situated comfortably in the American body politic. Officially, the LDS Church believes that polygamy was both begun and rescinded by divine revelation to its leaders, and for a century it has excommunicated those who reject the rescission by exceeding the bounds of monogamy. It now stands its ground on the sanctity of “traditional” monogamous marriage.

And yet, history is not so easily buried.

In December, two court decisions, occurring within a week, knit together the church’s past and present when they overturned bans in Utah on both polygamy and same-sex marriage. In the battle over how marriage is to be defined, twenty-first-century Mormonism thus finds itself at a junction of borders—the first an old frontier, the second a current boundary.

On December 13, U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups ruled in favor of Kody Brown and his three wives—principals in the TV reality show “Sister Wives” and members of a fundamentalist Mormon splinter group, the Apostolic United Brethren. Waddoups declared part of Utah’s 1973 anti-polygamy law unconstitutional for singling out for criminal prosecution those who, out of religious conviction, cohabit with and act as though they are married to more than one spouse without seeking or claiming a civil marriage contract.

“Plaintiffs argue that the criminalization of religious cohabitation in Utah through the Statute subjects a targeted group—fundamentalist Mormons who still believe practicing polygamy to be a central tenet of the religion established by Joseph Smith and continued by Brigham Young—to ‘the moral dictates of the LDS Church’ as legislated into criminal law on this issue,” Waddoups wrote. “This claim seems historically well-founded.”

He went on to administer a scarcely veiled hand-slap to the Mormon majority by praising the plaintiffs’ lawyers for upholding earlier “traditional” Mormon values: “The court notes that…non-Mormon counsel for Plaintiffs have vigorously advanced arguments in favor of the right of religious polygamists to practice polygamy…that would have perhaps delighted Mormon Apostles and polygamy apologists throughout the period from 1852 to approximately 1904.”

The fact that Waddoups was born and bred in the LDS Church gave the ruling special piquancy. He grew up in heavily Mormon southern Idaho, receiving a diploma for completing three years of seminary study in 1964.

He went on to get his bachelor’s degree at Brigham Young University and his law degree at the University of Utah, after which he practiced law until he was appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush in 2008. In January of 2011, he presided over the first session of the Utah State Senate, administering the oath of office to all members, including his nephew Michael Waddoups, who was chosen president of the body.

Eyeing “a bitter irony” in the church’s past, the judge declared that it was “possible to view the LDS Church as playing the role of both victim and violator in the saga of religious polygamy in Utah (and America).” The decision, wrote New York Times national correspondent John Schwartz December 15, “could open a new frontier in the nation’s recognition of once-prohibited relationships.” 

A few days later, U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby proceeded to strike down Utah’s 2004 same-sex marriage ban under the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. Although this was just the latest in a series of such state rulings that followed the U.S. Supreme Court’s Windsor decision six months earlier, it drew disproportionate attention, perhaps because of the feeling that if it could happen in Utah, it could happen anywhere.

As Laurie Wood, a Utah native who was married to her same-sex partner, told the Washington Post December 23, “Utah’s being exposed as a pretty great state. It’s so conservative. But it’s changing. It may have to be dragged into the 21st century, but it’s going to go there.”

Although the LDS Church had no direct legal involvement in the case, its position was hardly a secret. The church’s efforts on behalf of Proposition 8, California’s successful 2008 referendum banning same-sex marriage, were well known, and when the challenge to the law came before the U.S. Supreme Court last year, it submitted an amicus brief insisting that “marriage defined as the union of one man and one woman is an axiom of Western civilization.”

After Shelby’s decision, it reacted promptly: “We continue to believe that voters in Utah did the right thing by providing clear direction in the state constitution that marriage should be between a man and a woman.” Once upon a time, the church attacked the arguments of politicians and lawyers who trafficked in just such axioms in order to extinguish polygamy.

While the country where it was born moves rapidly toward an expansive definition of marriage, Mormonism thus performs an inverse recapitulation of Utah history. In modern business attire, Mormon leaders assume a public stance resembling the one previously taken by their Victorian Protestant detractors, though largely without the latter’s ad hominem ire. Nor are the Saints likely to be breaking out the pioneer formalwear any time soon on an issue their leaders construe as essential.

In a December 2012 interview with the church’s Public Affairs department, Apostle and former University of Chicago law professor Dallin H. Oaks was asked about the possible irony of Mormonism’s public campaign to restrict legal marriage to monogamous, heterosexual marriage, given the church’s polygamous heritage. Oaks acknowledged seeing a “profound irony” only if one does not subscribe to the church’s position on continuing revelation and prophetic authority.

The church’s argument against legalizing same-sex marriage centers psychologically on its perception of the well-being of individuals and especially children; socially on the traditional family’s crucial function in the fabric of a healthy populace; and theologically on two premises: 1) gender is an essential characteristic of individual pre-mortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose; and 2) the family plays an indispensable role in salvation (“exaltation”), which in Mormon thought is an eternal and relational, not merely a temporal and personal, matter.

As they currently construe their worldview, Mormons in effect hold, as did their critics through the 1880s, that the family is the bedrock of civilization and that “the whole question of the family” hinges on the issue of traditional marriage.

The two court decisions highlight a deep-seated problem in Mormonism, a problem more or less visible across time as tensions with American society rise or wane. It lies not in whether Mormon belief in ongoing revelation to its prophets will endure; that belief is inherent in the movement. The difficulty, instead, lies in how the church construes its relation to history and culture—the changing circumstances to which revelation responds. 

Is the contemporary issue of same-sex marriage analogous to the former one of race? In that instance, the Saints seemed to absorb racist values from the surrounding 19th-century culture, then over time infused these perspectives with a sense of divine commandment, only to be schooled decades later by an evolved and more tolerant nation and to question their earlier understandings because of growth in areas like Brazil. This contextualizes a revealed policy change—permitting African-American males to hold the priesthood—that came in 1978 after a century’s-long infliction of spiritual, personal, and institutional damage.

Or is Mormonism’s conservative stance on marriage more like Mormon resistance to America’s taste for alcohol, drugs, and uncommitted sex—which, Mormons tend to believe, continues to wreak havoc on families and on broad swaths of society? In other words, is the current official church stance on same-sex marriage an historically bound policy mistake based on unexamined assumptions and deductions from previous revelations? Or is it a revealed and eternal principle to be defended despite the increasing censure of a declining nation?

In this respect, it is worth noting that in recent times the church has taken a more accommodating line towards homosexuality per se than towards same-sex marriage. In 2009, for example, it publicly supported Salt Lake City ordinances to protect gay and transgender residents from discrimination in housing and employment. More recently, it has also sought, albeit awkwardly, to reckon with same-sex attraction among the faithful.

In April, the church surveyed LDS millennials to acquire a better understanding of the rising generation’s presumably more liberal social views. To the question “What is your sexual orientation?” the survey at first offered three possible answers:

•              “I am heterosexual, but I struggle with same-sex attraction.”

•              “I am heterosexual and do not struggle with same-sex attraction.”

•              “Other, please specify.”

Following a public stir prompted by the conspicuous absence of such terms as “gay,” “lesbian,” “homosexual,” “bisexual,” and “transgender” (as though a Mormon could not naturally “be” any of those things but only “struggle” against them), the survey was reworded “to better convey the intent of the question.” The amended version simply read: “Do you experience same-sex attraction?”

The survey suggests the church is in the process of examining its boundaries, positioning itself more sympathetically towards issues of same-sex attraction while working to preserve its peculiar identity, mission, and sense of divine will. But as two recent cases illustrate, in the Internet age, the viability of the movement’s current perimeter is being tested ever more publicly.

John Dehlin, a self-described “unorthodox, unorthoprax Mormon” and outspoken advocate for LGBTQ rights, runs the popular weekly podcast Mormon Matters. Earlier this year, Dehlin proclaimed his loss of faith in “many of the fundamental LDS church truth claims” while continuing to sponsor a forum to examine those claims and urging the church to embrace people like him.

In April, Kate Kelly, founder of the feminist group Ordain Women, led a phalanx of Mormon women on a march to the doors of the “men only” priesthood session of the church’s semiannual General Conference. Having publicized the march widely ahead of time, the women requested admittance one by one as cameras rolled and snapped.

Kelly and Dehlin drew disapproval from their local ecclesiastical leaders in Virginia and Utah respectively. Whether by design or happenstance, letters to both arrived within days of each other, indicating that their church memberships were in peril by way of a disciplinary hearing. (Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times broke the story June 11.)

Kelly’s hearing, held in absentia after she declined to attend, resulted in her excommunication June 23. Afterwards, a rare press release (“message”) directly from the church’s highest echelon in Salt Lake City reaffirmed a long-standing criterion for apostasy as “repeatedly acting in clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its faithful leaders” after being counseled to desist.

For his part, Dehlin had a probing conversation with his “stake president” (a stake is roughly equivalent to a diocese in Catholicism or Episcopalianism). As of the end of July, his case was still pending.

The Dehlin/Kelly episode shows that church leaders are uneasy about changes in American and global society. Even as they evince a desire to accommodate some of those changes, they do not wish to be pushed by lay people armed with blogs, microphones, media, or demonstrations at church events considered sacred.

In 1877, upon the death of Brigham Young, a nationally circulated cartoon offered an intimate snapshot of Young’s bedroom, where a comically wide bed full of wives with handkerchiefs wept over the loss of their husband and prophet. The derisive art captured the nation’s collective fear of the religious other: Fanatical loyalty and moral depravity were afoot in Utah.

A portrait of contemporary Mormonism would feature a marriage bed more typically American than Brigham Young’s. Yet, as issues related to gender, same-sex attraction, and authentic marriage loom on the horizon of the Mormon landscape, the LDS Church faces a range of prospective strange bedfellows to contend with, including lesbians and gay men, women priesthood holders and, conceivably, even same-sex polygamists.

In charting the future of Mormondom, here is a list of possible developments in descending order of likelihood.  

• Mormon women will be given additional authority and responsibility in wider spheres. They may or may not eventually be ordained, but however their authority is called, it will build on the rites they already perform in Mormon temples.

• Gay marriages will be conducted under Mormon auspices, possibly even in Mormon temples. Current leaders believe this is not possible, deducing from Joseph Smith’s revelations on marriage and families that creation and procreation derive from proper relations between a man and a woman (or, previously, women), and that this is the sole design of God. But coming along is a younger generation of believers and future leaders who are more comfortable with a range of gender identities among their friends and family. And they too will have children, who may well be even more comfortable.

• The court’s rejection of Utah’s prohibition of polygamy holds up on appeal, and the Latter-day Saints re-embrace the practice, whose theo-logic has never been repudiated. This would require a wholesale reversal of attitude among the Mormon faithful, the overwhelming majority of whom would be more repelled by the thought of polygamy’s renewal than would the general American populace.

• The rejections of Utah’s prohibition of polygamy and same-sex marriage hold up on appeal, and same-sex polygamy is sanctioned by the church.

Actualizing the second development would require the passing of a generation, a revolution, and a revelation. The latter two scenarios seem unlikely to emerge until the sun rises in the west.


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