Yesterday I found an old copy of National Geographic at work. The cover picture and title caught my eye. It was this skinny old man in a cowboy hat and suit surrounded by his four (still living) wives, their 46 children, and 239 grandchildren. All of the women are in prairie dresses, hair coiffed like a bad 80s/cowboy combo, and smiling. The background is a snowy western scene, white ground with Badlands-like rocks towering behind them. White text scrolls at the bottom of the picture: “Polygamy in America: One Man, Five Wives, 46 Children.” I couldn’t pass it up.
Most everyone had left, and I found myself reading the captions on the pictures to the one co-worker who was left. One picture showed a young woman with a pretty face and rosy cheeks holding a young child, both wearing blue prairie dresses with poofy shoulders. The caption says that the woman is 20, and the child she is holding is her 4-year-old daughter. Do the math. According to this article and some outside research I did about the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (a faction that broke from the main Mormon church after plural marriage was disallowed), marriages are arranged by the Prophet via revelations he has from God. This means that not only can men have multiple wives, but that girls can be betrothed to an older man based on an outside party’s “revelation.” Controversy surrounds these marriages to those who are critical of the FLDS church. Some believe it’s a way for one man to have all the power over what goes on in the church. The prophet can even excommunicate certain boys based on their behavior, even thought most believe that they are kicked out because there aren’t enough women to go around. When a married man is excommunicated, the prophet can reassign his wives to other men.
All of this seems completely foreign to those of us on the outside. What makes the FLDS church so interesting to those who are outside it is not their uber-conservative points of view, because we see those in many other religious groups, but their beliefs regarding human relationships and marriage. When we think of Mormons, most people automatically think of polygamy even though it is only a small fraction of the LDS church that still believes polygamy is sanctioned by God.
While reading this article infuriated me, it also got me thinking about marriage and what is and isn’t allowed by the federal government. The article mentions multiple “raids” on the enclosed ranches that house the FLDS church in which police took away all the women and children as well as many controversies in which the government performed “raids” based on information they did not know was false.
It made me wonder why the government takes such an interest in mandating who we can and cannot marry. I can imagine many liberal homosexuals’ faces twisted in disgust at the idea that one man can take multiple wives. The more conservative FLDS men cannot imagine a homosexual marriage. Meanwhile, the government disallows both.
I’m not here to argue that one is more right than another. However, I do believe that a my gay and lesbian friends who want to marry the person they have been with all of their lives have a different situation than the FLDS men who marry multiple women to expand their families and thus the Kingdom fo Heaven. The notion of gay marriage is more closely associated with what is currently sanctioned as a normal marriage. There are two people who can function the same or similar to a nuclear family, and can live their lives in the modern world. The main goal of gay marriage is to concrete a couple’s love for one another and to perhaps build a family under that love.
In my opinion, the Fundamentalist Mormon idea of marriage has more potential for abuse of women and children. When one’s goal is to increase his family size to get into heaven, one can become obsessed with it. It seems like the same idea as self-flagellation, when people are so obsessed with becoming closer to their religion or their God that they will do what seems like crazy or abusive actions to themselves or others in order to achieve such holiness. The notion of marriage in the FLDS church is not to concrete one’s love and to illustrate that love through a family, but to amass as much of a family as possible to be judged worthy in the eyes of one’s God.
It makes me think of the Catholic church and the idea of becoming a nun or becoming a “bride of Christ.” However, this does not typically lead to the abuse of a woman as she has many steps or transitions, and ample opportunities to be deemed unfit or to leave (although there are probably familial pressures, etc.). I’m not trying to say that plural marriage as approved by the FLDS church is the only type of marriage in which one can be abused, but I do think there is more potential for sexual and emotional abuse when one man takes many wives often of a young age and uses them to build up his family. While women in these homes don’t feel as though they are being abused and disapprove of the claim that they are being brainwashed, the idea that a 16-year old can be married and have a child seems a little wrong in modern society.
I know it’s not really my place to judge what is and isn’t right in an organization with which I have no experience other than what is being pasted on front pages of media websites and magazines, I do feel compelled to contemplate the status of the institution that seems to cause so much controversy in more than one form.
Why does the government get the final say in who can marry whom? Why are churches not ultimately responsible for ordaining marriage they see fit to ordain? What would happen if we eradicated the notion of marriage altogether? Is it solely a federal/state institution for purposes of taxation/keeping tabs on people? If it causes so much trouble, just wonder why we have to have marriage to begin with, especially when all one has to do to end it, is fill out some paperwork and pay a court fee.