Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Protecting Traditional Monogamy = Protecting Democracy

Stanley Kurtz, a fellow at the Hudson Institute and a strong advocate of traditional marriage, argues here that monogamous marriage is the only social family structure that truly supports democratic societies. Kurtz drills down on this issue in great detail to support his contention that polygamy, polyamory, and other non-monogamous and non-heterosexual relationships inherently directly conflict with the principles of democracy.

Kurtz spends significant time defending the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1878 Reynolds decision that outlawed polygamy in the U.S. and that was aimed specifically at the Mormon practice of polygamy. “Marriage, as its ultramodern critics would like to say, is indeed about choosing one's partner, and about freedom in a society that values freedom. But that's not the only thing it is about. As the Supreme Court justices who unanimously decided Reynolds in 1878 understood, marriage is also about sustaining the conditions in which freedom can thrive.”

Kurtz studies and discusses the current practice of polygamy in the Middle East, Africa, and Western Europe. But he studies the 19th Century practice of Polygamy by Mormons in greater detail. Kurtz acknowledges that some of the problems inherent in polygamy are no worse than some of the problems inherent in monogamy. But he says that polygamy only works well in highly structured societal situations with many rules and a high degree of (ostensibly patriarchal) control, where people subscribe to a group identity and individual desires are largely subordinated to the needs of the group. Modern monogamous marriage, on the other hand, survives on love freely given. Kurtz argues that monogamy is, therefore, the family structure that is most compatible with principles of democracy, where responsibility is accepted and duty is freely rendered.

Unlike some polygamy critics, Kurtz does not argue that polygamy is inherently dysfunctional. Polygamous relationships can be quite stable, although; Kurtz notes that divorce rates were high among 19th Century Mormons practicing polygamy. Kurtz is simply saying that polygamy cannot coexist well with democratic principles. He thinks Brigham Young would agree with him. Indeed, Mormon scholar Richard Lyman Bushman discusses in his book, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling how LDS Church founder Joseph Smith taught that a theocratic society with a patriarchal order was the order of heavenly government, and that it should be sought after on earth.

Kurtz agrees with Mormon apologists that have contended that the American campaign against Mormon polygamy was primarily meant to overthrow Mormon theocratic government and to implement American democratic republicanism. Of course, Brigham Young and his followers thought they were leaving the United States when they fled to what is now Utah, hoping that they would be free to practice religion and government as they wished. By the time they arrived in Utah, however, the territory had become part of the US. Once this development was realized, the church steadily appealed to libertarian sentiments to allow them to practice their religion as they wished.

Americans tried to break up the Mormon theocratic government by sending the railroad and by giving women the right to vote, but these measures were insufficient. They finally had to resort to extreme measures, which Kurtz likens to the War on Terror, to break the social and economic structures that allowed the theocracy to continue. While the war on Mormon theocracy was ongoing, there was a certain degree of sympathy throughout the nation for the Mormons’ plight. However, popular sentiment focused on the Western taboo against polygamy, thereby, allowing the campaign to go forward. Some have, therefore, argued that polygamy was merely a red herring used to stir sentiment to support a different issue. But Kurtz argues that polygamy was central to the issue because polygamy was the main structure that prevented Utah’s assimilation into American democratic society.

It was only after the church’s hold on political and economic power was shattered that democracy could flourish among Mormons and Utah was allowed to become a state. The church began the process of becoming an outsider looking in on public government rather than being in charge of it. While vestiges of polygamy continued for a while in the mainstream LDS Church, and splinter groups no longer affiliated with the church continue to practice polygamy today, the mainstream LDS Church has become an ardent supporter of monogamous marriage.

The church has usually kept its distance from other religions, but it recently joined with a number of others religious leaders to support amending the US Constitution to define marriage in the US as only the legal union of one man and one woman (see here). The church rarely makes political statements beyond its annual admonition to members to be politically active, but most congregations in the US had a letter read to them from the pulpit this past Sunday urging members to contact their senators regarding the scheduled June 6 vote on the amendment (see letter).

Weekly Standard editor, Fred Barnes, says here that the amendment will not pass by the 2/3rd margin required, although, it might pick up as many as 58 votes. Even if it did pick up that many votes, it would still be nine votes shy of the needed margin. Barnes notes that not many GOP leaders really want to deal with this issue. In the past legislators could contend to be conservative and yet vote against the amendment by arguing (as does John McCain) that it should be handled by the states. But with the number of legal rulings showing that courts are willing to treat state marriage protection laws lightly, this position is no longer realistic. 37 states now have some kind of law protecting marriage. Where rank and file voters have voted, those laws have passed by large margins, even in liberal strongholds.

While Barnes does not see the amendment passing this year, he thinks it is going to play a huge role in the next presidential election. Barnes thinks the issue has reached the same level with Republicans that defending abortion rights is with Democrats. It has become a litmus test for candidates for national office. Barnes sees John McCain as highly vulnerable on this issue. He doesn’t think it matters that polls show McCain as the Republican front runner today.

One might argue that making the amendment a litmus test might marginalize Republicans, much as Democrats have limited their appeal by their religious pro-abortion zeal. But unlike abortion rights, marriage protection has broad appeal among voters of all ages and stripes. I don’t see Republicans paying the same price for supporting the amendment that Democrats pay for supporting abortion.

Will the amendment ever pass? Who knows? If it does someday pass both houses of Congress by 2/3 majorities, 37 state legislatures would have to approve it. Those legislatures might have felt comfortable approving a state law, but would they feel that same level of comfort when considering whether to amend the US Constitution? If it were left to the public, it seems pretty clear that the amendment would be upheld. However, we have a representative democracy that is intended to balance the desires of both minorities and majorities, so it’s hard to say what will eventually happen.


That One Guy said...

So, is it YOUR position, or Kurtz's, that the Railroad was run through Utah, and, nationally, that women were given the vote, as a way to "break" the Mormon way of life?

While I haven't read the Hudson Institute's article, if that is his assertion, I have a problem with the validity of his stance. He (you?) seems to be placing more weight/value than is warranted on a marginal movement: Mormonism in general, polygamy specifically.

Granted, there were some items on the political landscape at the time, but I don't think any of it warranted the then extreme measure of granting the right to vote to women. I know that sounds wrong, but what I mean is that opposition to such a minor issue as "look what those Mormons are doing" would not have warranted such a drastic measure as this - the right of women to vote, I feel, was a much more far-reaching issue than trying to get "those damn Mormons" to stop marrying everybody in sight... To assign this issue to the single cause of dealing with the "Mormon Problem" is an agrandizing statement.

On another note, monogamous, opposite-sex marriage as a "societal building block" has only been around for a relatively short period of time, in the grander view. And, one might note, democtractic societies outside of this continent have thrived for a long time, and do to this day, while allowing a much more liberal view of marriage.

I think we try to dump all "other" types of "marriages" (or more correctly, relationships) into one bucket, as a society, to try to eliminate discomfort with the whole of it. For this reason, gay marraige, for example, gets tossed in with polygamy, poly-amory, and the like, when it should not be. In general, we are a nation of homophobes, they SCARE us, because they are not "like" us.

We have a tendancy to carry two buckets only: "like" us, and "not like" us. It's easier for us, and certainly more politically expedient to categorize people this way, we don't really have to think about it, then. You are either like me, or you're not.

As always, thanks for provoking thought.

Reach Upward said...

I have never thought of the railroad or women's sufferage (as it was called it back then) in Utah Territory as tools meant to loosen the LDS Church's hold on political and economical power in the territory. That is Kurtz's position. If you read his article you will see that he mentions it kind of as a passing note. He does not provide any backup for it.

I tend to agree that our modern concept of monogamous marriage is a relatively recent development. I don't want to put words in Kurt's mouth, but I'm almost certain he would argue that its rise coincides (not coincidentally) with the rise of the modern democratic republic. I think Kurtz would disagree with you that other democratic societies with more liberal views of marriage are thriving. He has many articles and studies that discuss the decline and social rot in those societies. You can see links to 11 years of such articles here. Kurtz is a studious conservative researcher. Some of his older articles sound positively prophetic given recent developments. But I think he is sometimes guilty of overstating his case. He definitely goes in for scaremongering.

Your argument that gay marriage should not be put in the same boat as polygamy, polyamory, etc. may have a valid basis, but the methods used to pursue its legalization (i.e. the civil rights avenue) essentially put it in the same boat as far as the law goes. All of these types of relationships that have been socially and/or legally taboo are joined at the hip. If one is legal, they all are. It might have been different had the matter been pursued differently, but now we have legal precedent to deal with.

I mainly wrote about this because I have done a fair amount of study on the 19th Century practice of polygamy by Mormons from Mormon perspectives. Kurtz provided a non-LDS conservative perspective on the practice, allowing me a different perspective. Much of the Mormon perspective looks at the drive to stop the practice as sheer bigotry. Kurtz puts a different face on it, but you really have to read his lengthy article to understand his arguments. I find it interesting and informative to see the issue from these divergent points of view. I also wrote about the current issue of the marriage protection amendment because it is a hot topic that cries out to be discussed in tandem with this.

J. Max Wilson said...

Thanks for your interesting post and the link to the Kurtz article.

A couple of quibbles:

"Brigham Young and his followers thought they were leaving the United States when they fled to what is now Utah... By the time they arrived in Utah, however, the territory had become part of the US."

Actually it was after they arrived. The Mormons arrived in Utah on July 24, 1847. The area was still part of Mexico at the time. The the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which relinquished the area to the U.S. was signed on February 2, 1848. It didn't become an official territory until 1850.

"...the church steadily appealed to libertarian sentiments to allow them to practice their religion as they wished."

The church's appeal was a little more complicated than that. See my recent post.

"Americans tried to break up the Mormon theocratic government by sending the railroad and by giving women the right to vote..."

Perhaps I am wrong, but I think that Kurtz has it backward on women's suffrage. The Wyoming Territory was the first place to grant women's suffrage in 1869. The Territorial government of Utah did the same only a few months later. Even though Wyoming was the first to authorize it, because the election dates were earlier in Utah, women actually voted for the first time in Utah before anywhere else. Contrary to Kurtz, the women's right to vote was granted by the "Theocratic" Territorial government and was revoked by the U.S. legislature in the The Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887.

I do agree with Kurtz that family structure has profound effects on government and society. While I do not agree with him that 19th century Mormon polygamy was incompatible with democracy, I do think that polygamy would be incompatible with a modern democratic society. In agrarian 19th century America, polygamy might have worked. But our modern economy is partially dependent on a mobile workforce. Moving from one state to another for a new emploment is difficult enough. It would be prohibitive for a polygamist to move his 4 wives and 36 children from Arizona to Illinois to start a new job. Hobbling the mobility of the workforce with polygamy would be economically disastrous.

Anyway, thanks for the article. Cheers!

Reach Upward said...

Thanks for your astute observations.