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.