Monday, February 06, 2006

How Can a Mormon Oppose Polygamy With a Straight Face?

Stanley Kurtz is a researcher and commentator on cultural issues. As a strong advocate of the traditional family (he has the numbers to back it up), he has often been derided by his critics as an alarmist right-winger opposed to equal rights for those with non-mainstream lifestyles. The alarmist title is probably accurate, but his prognostications have been unstintingly on target.

Charley linked to a very interesting article Kurtz has about the real reason for the recent push to abolish anti-polygamy laws in Canada. Why is this important to us? “The … Canadian polygamy studies are a time-capsule from the future, a preview of the argument we’ll be having … here in the United States.”

The entire article is about the slippery slope of gradually redefining marriage out of existence. Critics shredded Kurtz when he said that legal recognition of gay marriage would lead to arguments in favor of legal recognition of polygamous marriage. But that is precisely what is happening now that gay marriage is the law of the land in Canada. The next step is redefinition of adultery laws, followed by legal recognition of polyamory – the union of any number of people of any sex – which is already underway (unsurprisingly) in the Netherlands (see here).

The ultimate goal in the chasm at the bottom of the slippery slope is the complete abolition of marriage, which critics (particularly militant feminists) see as a nasty paternalistic throwback to the dark ages. These folks don’t let the fact that research shows that significant societal benefits accrue through the traditional family structure that can be achieved in no other way get in the way of their anti-male, anti-family agenda. (Try saying that sentence in a single breath).

The arguments in favor of gay marriage, polygamous marriage, polyamory, and unrestricted sex come across as ostensibly Libertarian. Hey, live and let live. You let me do my thing and I’ll let you do your thing. But this view totally ignores the good of society as a whole. The entire history of our nation is one big tug-of-war between the rights of the individual and the rights of society. All sides regularly resort to arguments on both ends of the rope depending on what helps their case.

The arguments in favor of protecting the special role of monogamous marriage come across as trampling the rights of the individual. This is nothing new. The Constitution allows the abrogation of individual rights when society has a compelling reason for doing so. The debate is whether society has a compelling reason to provide special protection for monogamy. Kurtz argues that it does (with evidence – see here for a list of some of his articles), while others argue (with emotion) that it does not.

As a practicing Mormon, I can see how this whole thing can put Mormons in an awkward position. While the LDS Church hasn’t permitted the practice of polygamy for over a century, “The plural marriage revelation still describes the modern Mormon view of marriage and family…” at least in the eternities (Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, p. 443).

I have written previously about the history of polygamy in the LDS Church. Many of the arguments in favor of legalizing polygamy today are the same ones that were put forward by the church and its members during the last half of the 19th Century. How can a practicing Mormon suggest that those arguments were valid then, but are not valid today?

For me, the answer lies in the fact that circumstances today are different than they were during the era of persecution of Mormon polygamy. Like monogamy, polygamy was a respected marriage tradition for millennia. While its modern practice is fraught with problems and societal costs, this is often due to its exclusivity and its tight regulation by authoritarian figures, rather than its inherent nature.

Polygamy actually falls within the definition of the "traditional" family structure. But today, legalization of polygamy is being pushed as a tool to destroy the pre-eminent role of the traditional family rather than protecting that role.

Mormons also believe in living prophets and continuing revelation – the idea that new commandments are given to meet current conditions. Take for example the 1995 proclamation on the family. After defining the traditional family, it says, “We call upon responsible citizens and officers of government everywhere to promote those measures designed to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society.”

Given that framework, it is quite understandable how modern Mormons can oppose the legalization of polygamous marriage without dishonoring the Church’s history and doctrine.

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