The sexual revolution of the 1960s and its many spiritual descendants took pride in the assumption that this is an age of unprecedented challenge to bourgeois monogamy. Like many other assumptions of progressive ideology, this one is mistaken. More than a century earlier, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormons, proclaimed and practiced polygamy (they called it “plural marriage”) as a divine commandment. There is a sublime irony here. Mormons played a prominent role in the recent campaign against same-sex marriage, especially in the California referendum, which was a major LDS project. Mitt Romney ran for the presidency as a paragon of monogamous virtue, despite his position as the Mormon equivalent of a bishop (which seems to have had little to do with the failure of his campaign).
Mormonism was easily the most colorful episode in American religious history and an early test of the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. Plural marriage played an important role in the early history of the denomination and was a major reason for the fierce hostility of a country still strongly influenced by conservative Protestantism—a hostility that eventuated in the lynch mob that murdered the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. In 1841 Smith had taken his first of several plural wives. The next leader, Brigham Young, led the Mormon trek across the continent to Utah, where he established the New Zion in Salt Lake City. Young practiced plural marriage with enthusiasm, to the point where today it is impossible to talk to a group of local citizens without encountering at least one claiming descent from Young. In the 1850s the Republican Party had a sentence in its platform denouncing the “twin barbarism of polygamy and slavery.” Much in line with public opinion, Congress passed a law prohibiting polygamy. In 1878 the Supreme Court, in Reynolds v. United States, effectively upheld this law by deciding that the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom could not be used to invalidate Federal laws directed not against specific religious beliefs but against practices based on such beliefs. (This decision must now be regretted by some Federal judges, bombarded by Catholic hospitals refusing to include contraception in employees’ health plans or Evangelicals bakers refusing to bake cakes for same-sex weddings.)
Whatever has changed in America since 1878, what has not changed is the propensity of the Supreme Court to plunge into complex moral issues and thus tie up the entire Federal judiciary with a flood of First Amendment cases. The Court opened the floodgates again in 2015 with Obergefell v. Hodges, which declared same-sex marriage to be a constitutional right. This predictably created a furious reaction among religious conservatives of all denominations (and almost certainly was a key factor in the election of Donald Trump, for whom 81 percent of Evangelicals voted despite his lifestyle not being exactly consonant with Southern Baptist morality). A recurring question among critics of Obergefell was “what’s next?”, with polygamy being high on the list of possible scenarios. I am not worked up over same-sex marriage, but of course the critics were quite right on this point. Once you allow any digits of the LBGT acronym in what is so delicately described as a “committed relationship”(are uncommitted relationships unconstitutional?) to marry each other, a plausible follow-up question is “why only two?”. But back to the Mormons: Reynolds obviously created dismay in Salt Lake City. Fortunately the leadership of the LDS church is credited with direct divine guidance, which could even overrule teachings by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. In 1890 LDS President Wilford Woodruff issued a decree terminating the mandate of plural marriage. It worked. In 1896 Utah was admitted into the Union as a state. Since then dissident Mormons continuing the practice are excommunicated.
Joseph Smith was visited by the angel Moroni in the same region of western New York state that used to be called the Burnt-Over District, because it was the locale of charismatic movements for many decades before and after the origins of Mormonism. There was above all the Second Great Awakening, which spawned innumerable other Protestant revivals. And there were two religious movements that also undertook sexual innovations, both led by charismatic leaders. The Oneida Community was founded by John Humphrey Noyes, who was kicked out of the Congregational ministry for adultery. At Oneida he instituted “complex marriage” (not too descriptive a term). Adults could sleep with each other rather freely, as long as the men did not ejaculate and risk impregnating the women. Noyes was also against masturbation. Older women no longer menstruating would train teenage boys in the technique of “dry intercourse.” Accidents do happen, but any offspring were raised communally. The other movement was brought from England by Mother Lee, who was against any sexuality at all. To deal with the resulting frustration, the Shakers (also called Shaking Quakers), who came out of the Society of Friends, engaged in wild dancing (Dionysian frenzy without the sex) to a tune of “Shake, shake Daniel, shake the devil right out of me.” As the experience of boarding schools indicates, the method of vigorous muscular Christianity (exhaust them until they are really, really tired) does not quite shake out the sexual devil. Still the two movements succeeded in having near-zero fertility, so they could only survive by recruiting new converts or by adopting children. But there were few converts, and the state intervened for various reasons. Two more recent marital experiments are also relevant—the Israeli kibbutz and the joint family in India. In the classical socialist kibbutz married couples were assigned separate bedrooms and any offspring were raised in communal “children’s houses.” The joint family is an old Hindu institution recently revived—several brothers would buy a house together and live with their wives in separate apartments. Both recent innovations were undermined by rising individualism: The kibbutz couples wanted to live with their children. And the Hindu couples quarreled about their shares of the equity accumulation.
My previous post was a reflection about Islamic modesty in the context of the Muslim challenge to European and American sexual and gender values (incidentally both conservative and progressive ones). So my attention was caught by an interview on National Public Radio of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a Harvard historian. I rarely listen to the radio, but Religious News Service has conveniently published the interview online. A book of hers just out (A House Full of Females, 2017) deals with Mormon polygamy in the 19th century (Mormons called it “plural marriage”). Thatcher Ulrich’s counterintuitive thesis is that plural marriage empowered women. There were obvious advantages, from always having available child care to the solidarity of “sister wives” (also the title of a recent TV serial on the TLC channel—are Mormons suddenly chic?). But there is more: The Mormon social ethic encouraged husbands to be respectful and responsible, and the wives were active beyond the family in community affairs. Interestingly, women were given the vote in Utah before that happened in U.S. elections.
In my recent work I have argued that the combination of religious pluralism and religious freedom makes it necessary to create a secular space in which the ordinary business of society can be conducted without ongoing inter-religious negotiations to avoid conflict—in the words of the 16th-century Dutch jurist, “as if God did not exist” (there are just too many gods). A degree of separation between religion and the state is very practical to this end (not necessarily the one formulated in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution). As to marriage, I’ll take the liberty of making some policy observations: “Marriage” is a religious term implying sacredness. That is precisely why everybody wants to appropriate it and why many religious people resent the expropriation. Although I’ve long been in favor of the legalization of same-sex unions, I would much prefer if the word “marriage” had been avoided. The word “partner,” applied to couples of any gender, would have been fine, and would have avoided much of the current venom. I know enough about politics to think that such change is unlikely in Western democracies and would actually increase the conflict. But whatever words you use, you should not force voter registrars or magistrates to act like clergy, or clergy to act as agents of the state. The state has very real interests in this matter—most important in the protection of children, but also in other matters, such as health, previous status, right to benefits from the welfare system, inheritance, obligations to care, medical decisions. All these matter can be settled by the requirements under which marriage licenses are already now issued everywhere by agents of the state. After a couple leaving with the license in hand, those who want to sacralize their union can do as they wish, and those who look at their union as being just a profane contract can either do nothing or enact whatever private ceremony they find plausible.
In a Bergerian parallel universe, the following dialogue could take place as two couples meet and introduce themselves. Jill says “This is my partner Jack.” And Jeremy says: “This is my partner Hugo”. After all four individuals beam at each other for their sexual liberation, they can embark on a long journey of discovering how much they irritate each other for their political views or their taste in music.