Thursday, March 12, 2015

A Few Thoughts on Polygamy, Its Discontents, and Its Weirdest Defenders

I recently read a post over at kiwimormon about an LDS man facing some kind of church discipline for writing an essay arguing that the historical Mormon practice of polygamy was not doctrinal. I don't know the guy and I want to be sensitive to what sounds like a difficult situation, so I won't comment more on that, but it got me thinking about the practice we Mormonfolk call plural marriage. For starters, I thought about how much I dislike that euphemism, so I'll just call it polygamy.*

My position on polygamy is straightforward: Not gonna do it. Not now, not ever. If the President of the Church ever personally asked me to practice it, I would politely invite him to go to hell. If an angel visited me at night with a flaming sword, I like to think I'd grab my wife's Legend of Zelda Master Sword replica and at least go down with a fight.

Or just have my wife fight the battle for me. She's pretty great.

But being against polygamy isn't exactly a #boldstance for a modern Mormon. The real question, whether Mormon polygamy was inspired, is trickier. I have to admit I find it all unseemly. Joseph Smiths' first plural wife, Fanny Alger, reads an awful lot like a run-of-the-mill affair in the historical accounts, and his later skulking behind Emma's back and coercing of young women living under his roof... it's not pleasant to think about. Even the Utah version of polygamy looks more like a system designed to consolidate religious and cultural power to an in-group of male ecclesiastical leaders. Was God behind all that? I doubt it, but I'll grant the sincerity of practitioners who believed he was. Maybe I'm wrong.

Still, I'd venture that most modern Mormons are at least somewhat uncomfortable thinking about polygamy. Anecdotally, I think most approach it like the Book of Mormon does, as a theological aberration. Maybe at times a necessary one, even a righteous one, but something best left alone nowadays. Descendants of pioneer stock celebrate their polygamist ancestors, but rarely because of their polygamy.

However, I've also seen Mormons--good, practicing members, not fundamentalists--who seem oddly enthusiastic about it. Read any online discussion among the faithful and eventually you'll come across someone (usually male) who not only defends the origins of polygamy but trumpets its necessity, superiority, and imminent millennial return. Most of us have probably heard something similar in Sunday School at one time or another (possibly quoting Brother McConkie). I mean, whatever makes people happy... but it's odd to think that there are a small minority of dudes roaming the hallways on Sundays just raring to get back at it as soon as Jesus gives the go-ahead.

Other members end up defending polygamy just as vigorously by asking barbed hypothetical questions like "Well, you may not like it, but what if the prophet--or an angel--or GOD HIMSELF told you to practice it? If you call yourself a faithful Mormon then you have to say you'll say yes or you're an apostate!" This tedious game of spiritual chicken arises from our unfortunate fetishization of Obedience, but it's equally puzzling. What if the prophet starts asking dudes to marry other women? He hasn't and I doubt he will, so it's an odd litmus test of faithfulness.

Still, the question of polygamy is mostly abstract to me and most LDS men. I think the spectre of plural marriage haunts LDS women in a much more palpable way. Guys will joke about how they couldn't handle polygamy because one wife is plenty (har har har), but ultimately I think the sense of power and privilege inherent in being an LDS man shields us from really having to grapple with it.

Women, on the other hand, are taught from the time they're young that polygamy is definitely gone but (depending on who they talk to) maybe coming back, and therefore they might someday be asked to divide their eternal companionship like a celestial timeshare. At least the first wife theoretically has to give her consent to future marriages, although we all know that saying no is tantamount to disobedience, so that's cold comfort. Meanwhile, second or third wives are out of luck, I guess. They'll just be given to some faithful man in the hereafter. But don't worry, that's only if it comes back, which we don't even know, so why worry? (But it might!) Combine that uncertainty the generally passive, indeterminate vision of the afterlife LDS women are taught (compared to the active role promised to men) and it's no wonder Mormon women seem to worry more about polygamy, at least in my experience. It affects women more and they have less control over it! Not to mention the elephant in the room of Doctrine and Covenants 132, where Emma is apparently threatened with freakin' destruction (!!!) for her reluctance to get with the program. It's all a little ominous, is what I'm saying.

It makes me sad. The church's policy of basically shrugging its shoulders about polygamy doesn't seem entirely adequate in the internet age when all of the messy details are right there on Wikipedia, especially when we still practice polygamy in principle for male sealings to deceased spouses (see Joanna Brooks's nice take on that here). The LDS Gospel Library essays are useful, as are the quality, scholarly books and articles available to anyone with the resources to find them, but at some point I think we'll have to reckon with polygamy more openly. What that means in practice, I have no idea. I'll leave the grand calls to action to others.

Or maybe, like an embarrassing outfit we wore in high school, polygamy is destined to linger in our closet forever as a painful but unavoidable reminder of where we came from. Something we can learn from, at least. Let's just hope that the people eagerly waiting for it to come back in style are as wrong as I think they are.

*yeah, yeah, technically it's polygyny but in the context of a blog that mostly does jokey lists it seems pretentious to call it that.