Sunday, April 20, 2008

Polygamy as an Alternative Lifestyle

Not surprisingly, the FLDS roundup is generating a lot of traffic in the blogosphere. But the range of sentiment is far from uniform. I have been struck at how different my views are from some fellow Mormons. In an attempt to understand these differences, I have tried to consider the reasons for my views and those of those who think differently.

My Views

Generally speaking, I believe polygamists, the FLDS included, should be left alone. America is a big diverse place (or it should be) and there is plenty of room for people to do their own thing. I say live and let live. In this sense, I see polygamy as an alternative lifestyle. People engage of lots of behaviors I don’t but that doesn’t mean laws should be made to make them illegal. This is especially true when it comes to religion. Americans should be tolerant of religious behavior that deviates from the norm.

Of course child abuse should not be allowed, but polygamy itself, is something people should be allowed to practice. And I premise my statements here on the notion that what is really going on in Texas is the suppression of the FLDS church and its polygamous practices and not child abuse per se.

Given that polygamy is illegal, prosecution of it should be engaged in only in the rarest of circumstances and when other things are going on like statutory rape or welfare fraud. Polygamist should not be singled out. Government authorities have a great deal of latitude in what they choose to go after and polygamy should not even be on their list. There are other legitimate ills they should focus on.

Ok, so why do I think the way I do? In trying to understand my outlook, I disclose the following:

1) Family -- I have a historical connection with Polygamy. My grandmother and grandfather were raised in polygamist households. I see from my own family history that the practice of polygamy doesn’t make you a bad person or one unworthy of rearing children.

2) Church -- I belong to a church which originally practiced polygamy. It reveres a man (Joseph Smith) who had numerous wives, some of them in their teens. My Church still practices a type of polygamy (a man may be married to more than one woman in the afterlife although he is limited to one at a time in this life. I would consider myself a hypocrite if I came down on the FLDS for their polygamous practices given the practices of the Church I belong to.

3) Society – I live in a society where people can engage in all types of previously unacceptable forms of behavior. We allow for all types of alternative lifestyles and arrangements but we cannot allow this one?

4) Politics -- I consider myself a moderate democrat but I have a strong Libertarian streak. I believe the State should sparingly regulate personal behavior.

5) Law -- I am a strong believer in personal and parental rights. I believe the Texas authorities have violated the FLDS members’ civil rights and have reached well beyond what is reasonable and justifiable in how they have handled this matter.

Given my perspective, I have been quite surprised by the number of fellow Mormons who think the opposite. Many Mormon bloggers support what the Texas authorities have done. And even more support the suppression of polygamy but have qualms about the way Texas has gone about it. Here is my brief break down of their thinking:

1) Some bloggers think polygamy is just plain wrong. They don’t like it that the Mormon Church practiced it in the past and they don’t like it in any other church that practices it now. They think that there is good reason that it is against the law and it should not be tolerated. They think Texas has done what Utah and Arizona should have done long ago.

2) Some bloggers think that FLDS style polygamy is wrong. They think it has little in common with the former practice of the Mormon Church. They think that polygamy under the FLDS is abusive and insular. They think that FLDS men are pedophiles and control freaks and cowards.

3) Some bloggers think that the FLDS have no heavenly authorization to practice polygamy. They believe that the Mormon Church had God’s permission to engage in polygamy but that that permission was rescinded. As such, the FLDS practice is inherently wrong and a violation of God’s laws.

I don’t find these positions compelling. Perhaps I am blinded by my history and biases. Perhaps I have simplified or misstated the position of those that don’t share my views. I still think we should leave them alone.


pb said...

I agree with you Sanford, primarily on the basis that I think the state should regulate personal behavior only sparingly. I don't think the state needs to recognize polygamist marriages, but I don't think they need to prosecute polygamists either. The problem with the FLDS situation is not polygamy, its sex with minors. If Warren Jeffs would see fit to have a revelation saying that God would no longer be revealing to him that 14-year-old girls should be "wed" (not legally) to 50-year-old men, and that God had decided that hereafter girls must be at least 18 years old before they may begin their service as concubines, then I'd say live and let live. I take a different stance when Warren Jeffs has not had such a revelation, but instead insists that God is telling him that minor girls are fair game. Then we're up against a situation where we have to decide whether God or the law wins. I say the law should win because God just doesn't seem to have a lot of sense. That doesn't mean polygamy should be prosecuted. It means that minor children should be removed from the Warren Jeffs community because they are targets of sexual abuse. And obviously, the old farts who are taking these young girls as concubines should be prosecuted for statutory rape. If God really thinks that it is crucial to his law on earth that minors be available for concubinage to old men, then he'll have to intervene and strike down all the legislators, prosecutors, judges, and juries who disagree. Seems like the least he could do, given his omnipotence and all that.

Fifthgen said...

I agree generally with Sanford, and with pb to the extent pb argues that if the FLDS discontinue the underage marriages (and I think maybe some other illegal stuff), we should leave them alone. I am not sure how prevalent teenage marriages to "old men" really is among the FLDS. The call that prompted the raid (alleged sixteen year-old married to a 50 year old) now appears to have been false - - or at least has not been confirmed. The Elisa Wall case involved a 14 year-old married to a 19 year-old (her cousin). Not a shocking age difference. But, any underage marriage is wrong and should be stopped.

Fifthgen said...

More on the alleged prevalence of teenagers being married to "old men": The SL trib reports today that, "[i]n yet another FLDS raid-related development, coordinating attorneys, legal aid attorneys and guardians ad litem announced an undisclosed number of 20-30 young women whose adult status had been debated had indeed been determined to be legally adults."

The Faithful Dissident said...

OK, I'm pretty much in agreement with all your opinions regarding the FLDS. There is just something that I think about a lot and it makes me feel like a hypocrite to say that I can believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and these FLDS are just some middle-aged perverts. Fithgen, you say that "any underage marriage is wrong and should be stopped." I agree with that totally. However, how do we reconciliate our faith in Joseph Smith if we believe that? Is is it just because Joseph lived in the 1800's and it was acceptable then, but not now? I realize that it was a different era, but does it justify it? I had this conversation with my bishop recently. He tried to calm my anxieties about it by telling me about his grandmother who was married at age 15. Joseph did not marry any minors, he said. I said he did. The way I see it, a minor is always a minor, whether the law recognized it or not.

Does anyone else feel this conflict within themselves because of this whole FLDS case? Every fibre of my sensible being is telling me that Warren Jeffs and co. are nothing but dirty old men. But how can I say that when I follow a religion that was organized by a man who married teenagers? In what year did an older man marrying a young girl go from being acceptable to perverted?

I feel like one big fat hypocrite.

Sanford Barrett said...

faithful dissident says

Every fibre of my sensible being is telling me that Warren Jeffs and co. are nothing but dirty old men.

Why do you feel this way? These people exist in a culture where it is ok for an older man to marry a much younger woman. In our culture this might lead to the conclusion that they are dirty old men but they don’t operate in our culture, they operate in theirs. If you were living in their culture would they still be dirty old men?

But how can I say that when I follow a religion that was organized by a man who married teenagers?

That is such a good question. How can we condemn the FLDS for practices that Joseph Smith and other Mormons engaged in? Many of my fellow Mormons seem to do so rather easily. I really wonder if they understand their religion or where they come from or who Joseph Smith really was. I don’t see how you can begin to comprehend Joseph Smith unless you acknowledge that polygamy was a critical part of his grand theology. And Joseph's actions with regard to polygamy are nearly incomprehensible unless viewed through an extremely accepting lens. So if you have serious issues with polygamy among the FLDS, I can see how an honest appraisal of Joseph Smith would be troubling to say the least. That’s why to avoid feeling hypocritical, I may be giving the FLDS more of a pass here than I should.

Anonymous said...

wow. this is very intersting. i happened to have a 2 hour discussion with my dad on just this tonight. i really is interesting to see different people's point of views on this topic.

hmmm....more later.


The Faithful Dissident said...

I try really hard to put myself in their shoes, if that's at all possible. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt and I want to sort of "excuse" these men from behaviour that my head is telling me is perverted because they've been raised in this culture generation after generation. I was having this conversation with my husband yesterday after watching Dr. Phil inside the compound. He has an easier time of just dismissing it as perverted and he points to it as evidence that the LDS Church was wrong for introducing polygamy in the first place. It just cannot work because of human nature and the messed-up gene pool. I want to say I agree with him because I do, but saying that an being a Mormon makes me a hypocrite, in my view.

We were also talking about where to draw the line of responsibility. Can even Warren Jeffs be blamed since he was raised on this? Does a 50-year old man who weds a 15-year old have the "Light of Christ" telling him that this is wrong? Or is his own "Holy Spirit" telling him he's right? Or is he just a plain dirty old man?

To what point can you justify your actions based on culture? I honestly don't know.

pb said...

Sanford, I take issue with your view that these people live in a different culture. These people live in the United States of America in 2008. They attempt to insulate themselves from this fact, but they cannot. Sure, they can create a commune and not allow their children to be educated, but they cannot change the wider culture in which they operate. They are not living in China in the 15th century. They are living in a western democracy that believes it has the power to protect children from what it defines as sexually predatory behavior -- though certainly this same behavior might not be defined as sexually predatory in a different time and place. But the behavior is taking place here and now. So why should we look at it through any lens other than that of the here and now?

Fifthgen said...

I agree that it is difficult to reconcile our opprobrium for the FLDS (based upon our 21st century, western values) and reverence for Joseph Smith, given his marriage to 2 or three very young women. Here are a couple of things I have thought about, though.

1) I think the American frontier (Ohio, Missouri and Illinois qualify here, I think) in the 1830s and 40s really was a different place from today's American society. It probably is not fair to judge early Mormons by our standards.

2) My impression (though I admit, I have not really studied this) is that marriage of young teenage women in early Mormon polygamy was relatively rare, although it undoubtedly did happen. Was it more common than in monogamous marriages in American society generally at the time? More or less common than among the FLDS? I don't know. It would be interesting to find out.

3) On a related note, giving Joseph Smith the benefit of the doubt, he was not perfect and was attempting a very novel social experiment. I might be willing to cut practitioners of polygamy in the very early days some slack as they tried to refine what they were doing and how it impacted their own culture and society, and the broader society in which they operated.

4) While I do not condone any sexual abuse of minors, I am not sure that it is fair to assume that "sexual perversion" is the motivation here. I think Sanford's point is that, as hard as it may be for us to understand, maybe there is a more innocent motivation. Setting aside the "commandment of God" justification, isn't it possible that a group could decide that encouraging young women, who are reaching the age where sexual activity is inevitable, to enter into a stable relationship with a mature, responsible man is preferable to allowing her operate in a sexual environment that will likely be less supportive? ( I am of course, assuming no abuse beyond the mere fact of the underage marriage here).

In Newsweek's cover story on divorce this week, there was a story of a young woman who became sexually active at 13 because (get this) her teenage boyfriend told her mother that they wanted to have sex, and could the mother please put the girl on birth control. Which the mother did. Is this a healthy paradigm? Letting the teenage boyfriends influence when and how teenage girls become sexually active? Is the pressure placed upon young women by their boyfriends in our society where sexual activity is presumed somehow better or less coercive than what FLDS women face? I wonder if teenage pregnancy among the FLDS (including the "married" young women) is higher or lower than in society at large. I wonder if Joseph Smith, who married two or three teenagers, but also women in their 40s and 50s, was motivated by something besides uncontrolled sexual desire (not that women in their 40s and 50s can't be hot). I think you have to consider the possibility.

None of this is to say that I would agree with the possible justification for underage marriage proposed above, or that the practice of underage marriage is right. Abusive and coercive marriages of very young women certainly would have a detrimental impact on the women involved, regardless of the motivation. I just think the "whys" of polygamy are much more complex than Dr. Phil or other critics suggest.

pb said...

fifthgen: thank you for your parenthetical "(not that women in their 40's and 50's can't be hot)." I don't buy into the subtext on Joseph Smith, which is, yes he got his dessert with the hot, nubile young things, but look, he also ate his vegetables and took on the old hags. I think its very possible that those "old hags" were the REAL dessert.

The Faithful Dissident said...

When we compare the lifestyles of polygamists with regular American families, you can easily ask yourself where you would rather be if you were a 10-year-old girl. Ironically, I bet that a lot of those polygamist kids are being brought up in much better and healthier environments than a lot of kids in America outside the compound. Fifthgen, the example you give with the 13-year-old on birth control is a good one. Though perhaps not in the majority, I'm sure that's not an isolated case and it's certainly not the only example of parents condoning, encouraging, or just not giving a crap about their kids' sexual promiscuity. One can argue whether a kid growing up seeing their mother turning tricks and sniffing coke is any better off than a kid in a polygamist family. I would guess no, but the government isn't about to step in to intervene in every case of dysfunctional parenting in America. I think what is so inflammatory about the polygamists is that they're pushing the boundaries of how much you can get away with in the name of God. At what point do the authorities need to step in and how far can you go in the name of freedom of religion before you lose that right? Right now there is a debate in Europe regarding Scientology, whose anti-psychiatry rhetoric has apparently resulted in the recent suicide of a young girl, and it's not the first. It's hard to set and implement laws regarding religion when one's faith can easily cloud the boundaries of what is detrimental to a human being or not, whether it's sex or psychiatry.

Fifthgen said...

Interesting development:

Sanford Barrett said...

pb --- What has really tossed me for a loop through this whole thing is how believing Mormons can pile on the FLDS while giving what I deem scant consideration to their own polygamous history and theology. Because you are not a believing Mormon, I don’t expect this to be a conundrum for you. Even so, I am surprised for other reasons at the resoluteness of your position.

Do you really believe that in the “United States of America in 2008” that we should condone the type of police state action that has occurred here? Are you not at all worried about what this action portends for the civil liberties of you and me and our children and fellow citizens? Or do you think this is an isolated incident and nothing like this could ever happen to you? Do you really think that the appropriate response to an unsubstantiated allegation against one man is to haul off 416 children? Oops, make that 437 kids (understandable mistake since all polygamist offspring look the same).

Honestly I am surprised. I have met few people in my life more prone to follow their own path than you irrespective of what others think is right or wrong. You are so fiercely determined to live life your way. Can you really not see some similarities between yourself and these people who are so committed to living life the way they see fit? Does not your iconoclasm extend to other iconoclasts?

And if your response is that the FLDS men are predatory perverts than I ask you how do you know that? Is if enough to accuse someone in the “United State of America in 2008” to make it true? I know you are a divorce attorney but I think you need to get in touch with your inner criminal defense attorney.

Sanford Barrett said...


From the Salt Lake Tribune this morning

Colorado authorities said Wednesday that at least one call to a Texas domestic crisis hot line was linked to a Colorado Springs woman.
Earlier, Texas officials said they had not found the girl, who used the name "Sarah." But that became immaterial when investigators found evidence of sexual and physical abuse, CPS spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said. She described "Sarah" as a metaphor for the young women who were being abused and impregnated.
Firmage, however, said that to base the state's actions on such a metaphor is "stupid and outrageously unconstitutional,"

Fifthgen said...

If only the raid, too, had been metaphorical.

pb said...

Okay, Okay, I give in. Babies should go back to their mothers. But only if I can continue to spew forth whenever I feel like it with only metaphorical consequences.

pb said...

faithful dissident: I'm an athiest and a non-mormon. So are most of the people that I know and associate with. None of us turn tricks (at least in the children's presence) and none of us snort coke. All of us care about our children's sexuality and how it should be expressed appropriately. Does that shock you?
Oh, and by the way, the government (i.e., child protective services) most certainly would step in if it were advised that a parent was exposing their child to prostitution and drug use. Please report any such incidents of which you are aware.

The Faithful Dissident said...

PB, no, that doesn't surprise me because I would never imply that it's all the atheists and non-Mormons who are the ones raising dysfunctional families. Come to think of it, most of the dysfunctional parents I know are or have been Mormons. If that's what you got out of my comment, then you totally misinterpreted it.

"Oh, and by the way, the government (i.e., child protective services)most certainly would step in if it were advised that a parent was exposing their child to prostitution and drug use."

Well, ideally they would step in. But if there were enough gov't agents to intervene in all such cases, then I guess it wouldn't really be a problem now, would it? I know that prostitution and drug use are extreme examples. In those cases, you would certainly hope that the authorities would get involved. But there are plenty of single moms who have one guy after another moving in and out of their bedroom, who aren't necessarily prostitutes, so it's not illegal. Many of them drink too much as well. I know some of these people personally and if I were to call the authorities on them, they would laugh in my face. If they're not breaking the law, then what can they do about it?

My point is that you don't necessarily have to be a polygamist or an atheist to be dysfunctional. Neither do you have to technically be breaking the law in order to engage in behaviour that's detrimental to a child.

pb said...

Well, I guess I'm relieved to know that we athiests and polygamists (not sure how we got lumped together?) don't have a corner on the dysfunctionality market.

Fifthgen said...

Here is a link to an interesting post on another blog that addresses the comparative societal impacts of monogamy and polygamy.

Fifthgen said...

Sanford: Do you know how to make the url identified above a live link? I don't.

Sanford said...

There may be an easier method but the link below takes you to a page that shows a way to do it.

How to embed a hyperlink on a blog comment

It will require the use of html code. The only other html I know is how to italicize something.

You would think html would be second nature to me given my Ph.D in FORTRAN and post doc work in COBOL.

The Faithful Dissident said...

OK, pb, I'll add Mormons, Muslims, Catholics, Hindus, Jews, Protestants, Baptists and Agostics to that list. Have I "lumped" together all the major groups of people yet? I'm sure I missed someone. I apologize in advance. :)

Sanford said...

Hey Faithful Dissident, don't give the French and the Australians a pass -- everybody knows how dysfunctional they can be. :)

pb said...

faithful dissident: thanks. See, now that we're all in it together, we can feel that interconnected feeling, can't we?

Fifthgen said...

According to the SL Trib over the last few days, there are no two FLDS kids missing and 8 or 9 that have been in the hospital. These kids are definitely better off now that they are in state custody.