It had all been going so well for the largest sect of the Mormon faith. A favoured son was a leading candidate for the Republican nomination for President, while other candidates were ruling themselves out, and then along came another church member candidate, neatly providing a Plan B. The Proposition 8 campaign in California had put them on the same side as Christians, and in the last week the head of one the sects they think of as breakaway became the latest of his group to be convicted of child sexual abuse. In the public conscience of America perhaps they could finally win acceptance and an element of amnesia as to how their faith was practised in the late nineteenth century.
But the issue of polygamy just wouldn’t go away.
The price of the dozen or so convictions of FLDS members for child sex abuse was the evidence gathering process that preceeded it, involving the invasion of their compound on the basis of a hoax call, with more than 400 children snatched from their families, and a string of forced DNA tests, though it appears that for over 90% of them there was no evidence of any abuse. So it looked like the State of Texas had overreacted, and that plenty of innocent polygamous families had been broken up for having what the state saw as the ‘wrong’ religious beliefs. Just as the State’s case for custody of all those kids ultimately collapsed, one wonders if their spurious justification for gathering evidence may one day undermine all the convictions based on it.
Up in Canada the hysteria about the FLDS had slowly pushed the Attorney General of British Columbia to ignore all the advice he was getting from special prosecutors that his polygamy ban was unconstitutional, and to go ahead with prosecutions for polygamy, because he couldn’t prove abuse, leading to an embarassing smackdown from the Court for ‘prosecutor shopping’, and finally to a constitutional reference case which has taken 4 months to test the cases on all sides and risk an offical ruling that, actually, polygamy might be a protected right.
Meanwhile, in the popular media, a pair of gay writers from California had got together with their Hollywood friends to run a total of 5 series of “Big Love”, a fictional drama with many Mormon polygamous characters, reminding America of the Mormon link with polygamy, and hinting that sometimes polygamy might be OK.
The show had been enough to suggest there might be ratings in the polygamy topic and, sure enough, the Learning Channel brought out ‘Sister Wives’, a reality show about a modern Utah polygamist, his three wives (now 4) and a whole bunch of kids, who are all shown in the second series fleeing Utah because of possible prosecution. This has led to the dad, Kody Brown, with pro bono help from a constitutional law professor, suing to prevent the enforcement of Utah’s anti-polygamy laws, in the most coherent and untroubled challenge to the law in 130 years.
So the largest Mormon denomination, having turned its back on polygamy way back then, because the US legal system simply wouldn’t allow it, has found itself locked in a battle with gay rights groups that has opened the door to that legal system changing its mind. But there is no sense of relief, or of getting back to their roots, as in that period they have transformed into the most avidly anti-polygamy organisation in the world. The last thing they want is for polygamy to be legal, as it opens up a can of worms in their own membership and in their theology. Returning to polygamy would alienate the people who bought the myth of Mormons as being all about a victorian version of family values, whereas ignoring a lawful polygamy would seem to deny their history.
So the time has come to revise that history and iron out any unwelcome creases in the theology. Enter Professor Valerie Hudson of Brigham Young University, and the ‘F.A.I.R.’ Group of Mormon apologists. Mormon marriage was always based on a monogamous relationship between one man and one woman apparently, and references to Abraham’s wilingness to sacrifice Jacob are a coded way of telling us that polygamy was the exception, not the rule. “In the Lord’s eyes,” she said, “monogamy is not a sacrifice, but a blessing. But polygamy is a sacrifice. … When God does command polygamy, he understands it is a sacrifice of the joy that would be there for his children if they could live the higher law … the Lord desires all of his children to have the natural joy that comes from living the law of marriage: monogamy.”
Hudson’s view that “in the eternities we will have the privilege of living under the law, not the exception to the law” does not chime well with Mormon multiple eternal marriages of those who are divorced or widowed, but not letting a charge of inconsistency get in the way of a convenient change to doctrine has been as much of a distinguising feature of the Mormon church as polygamy and the avoidance of tea and coffee have ever been. The Mormon Tabernacle choir are not going to be singing the praises of polygamy any time soon, even if the US legal system does, and the battle to prevent Mormons accepting polygamy just because their faith requires it has already started.