Wives and Republicans

Observations on polygamy

It need hardly be said that, in its judgement of the 17 presidential candidates, America is deeply divided. But if there's one thing that unites the Christian right with the liberal left it's discomfort over Mitt Romney's membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Mormon faith is a degree more alienating for secular Democrats even than Bush's Protestantism. And it could be a deal-breaker for the evangelical wing of the Republican Party.

To begin with there's the Book of Mormon. Written, apparently, by fifth-century American-Indians and translated in the 1820s by Joseph Smith, this "third testament" reads like a pastiche of the King James Bible, combining Jacobean English with Hebrew verse rhythms. The original is not available for study, Smith having returned it to its hiding place on the instructions of an angel.

Weirder than Smith's book is his enthusiasm for polygamy. For more than a century, the Church of Latter-day Saints has distanced itself from this practice, a criminal offence in Utah, as it is under federal law. But traditionalist Mormons in the backwoods refuse to let the practice die and, like disreputable relatives, continue to besmirch the family name.

In a widely reported case, Warren Jeffs, leader of a fundamentalist Mormon community, is currently being tried on charges that, in arranging a marriage involving a minor, he was an accomplice to rape. In practice, polygamy is tolerated in Utah. It's the unambiguous issue of statutory rape that has got Jeffs into trouble.

Coercing underage girls into marriage is morally indefensible. But what's wrong with polygamy? The conflicting contracts of the bigamist must always be legally objectionable. But what about an open arrangement involving three or more parties old enough to decide for themselves?

The Christian right is consistent on this point. Marriage unites a man and a woman in the eyes of God; no other version can be tolerated. But those on the left, who place the wishes of consenting adults above religious texts, need a more sophisticated answer.

Polygamy is patriarchal, of course, reducing women to servant status or worse. That certainly seems to be the way it works in practice. But how would we respond to an arrangement involving one wife and a number of husbands, played out, not as it might be in some utopian matriarchy, but in the backwoods of Utah? We might fear for this lone wife even more than for one of a supportive sisterhood of wives.

Perhaps the problem with polygamy lies with social context rather than with the make-up of particular households. Perhaps we should be asking how liberated are the monogamous wives of Romney's church, or of Bush's church, and whether America is ready to elect a female president.

If Romney overtakes Rudy Giuliani in the Republican race, the dirty laundry of Mormon tradition may get more of an airing, but voters will probably not reflect too deeply on the issues.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble ahead: the crises facing Gordon Brown