My (Mormon) Hang-up with (Opposition to) Gay Marriage

November 24, 2003 | one comment
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Hello all. My thanks for Nate for inviting me (if only for a while) to participate in this blog, and thanks for the introduction Kaimi. Speaking of such, I notice that Times and Seasons started off without any general explanations or identifying comments. Is that a policy, or just because it was assumed that most everyone who might read this blog would know who all the participants are? Either way, I feel foolish jumping into a conversation without doing a little of the usual sacrament-meeting-”let me tell you a little bit about myself”-routine. So anyway…my name’s Russell Arben Fox; I’m married to Melissa Madsen Fox; we have two daughters, with a third due in about two weeks. I live in Jonesboro, AR, and teach political philosophy and other stuff at Arkansas State University. I’m originally from Spokane, WA; my wife is from Ann Arbor, MI; we met and married while students at BYU, which I attended from 1987-1994, with a break in there for a mission to South Korea. We’ve lived in the southern U.S. for either 2 1/2 or 8 1/2 years now, depending on if you include the Virginia suburbs of D.C. (where we lived while I worked on my Ph.D. at Catholic University of America) in “the South.” Everything else you might want to know about me or my family can be found at either of the links Kaimi provided. Ok, that’s enough.

Kaimi’s post on gay marriage, and David Brooks’s excellent conservative defense of such, puts me in mind of some long e-mail conservations I’ve had with many friends (both LDS and otherwise) over the last half-year or so. Looking back through my archives, it seems like there’s been no single topic we’ve addressed more often than this one. And still my mind isn’t made up. Put very simply, my dilemma is this: I consider myself to be a social conservative, and yet I am also Mormon, which is not entirely compatible with (or at least does not fit very well with, as far as I understand these things) social conservatism. Oh, it does match up very well in some ways, to be sure; but fundamentally, the sort of ontology necessary for a thorough social conservatism isn’t–again, in my view–present in Mormon doctrine or Mormon history. For most moral issues, this needn’t be a problem; but since the controversy over gay marriage has forced and/or encouraged both its supporters and its opponents to plumb the very depths of the social nature and/or construction of “traditional” or “natural” marriage, I can’t help but feel, as a Mormon, somewhat on the spot.

Why? Because our history of polygamy prevents us, as far as I can tell, from speaking of heterosexual monogamy as either “traditional” or “natural,” at least not in the same way many evangelicals, Catholics, and others have tended to talk about it. Mormons can adopt their language all they like, but until or unless church leaders announce (or at least tolerate the development of the idea) that 19th-century polygamy was wrong and/or a mistake and/or one of those crazy aberrant things, like God commanding Abraham to kill his son (except 19th-century Mormon men did, in fact, go through with marrying multiple women), I simply do not see how we can in good conscience defend a position which instantiates a particular definition of the family as intrinsically necessary or good or worthy. The reasoning, as far as I can tell, is pretty straightforward:

1. God is good.
2. God would not command His children to do something which did not partake of His goodness.
3. God commanded His church to practice plural marriage.
4. Therefore, polygamy must be something that, at least in some possible case, can result in goodness.
5. If polygamy can result in goodness, then the insistence that only “traditional” or “natural” forms of marriage–namely, heterosexual monogamy–can ever have good consequences is false.
6. Therefore, the moral argument for supporting heterosexual monogamy on the basis of its “traditional role” or its “naturalness” fails.

What does this necessarily have to do with gay marriage? Perhaps nothing. After all, as Gordon points out, the feelings of many Mormons towards the possibility of gay marriage may have more to do with a sense of its position on the “hierarchy of sins” than anything ontological. That is, maybe we can’t theologically postulate a particular definition of marriage as “natural” (at least not without doing damage to our presumed belief that 19th-century prophets were, in fact, speaking as prophets when they defended plural marriage), but that doesn’t mean we can’t organize around especially heinous threats to its present form. But to my mind, such an argument would have to focus less on “marriage”–its qualities, history, civic role, legal context, cultural products, social benefits etc.–and more on the threat itself: that is, on (the sin of) same-sex relationships themselves. Which is why I tend to find it much easier to take seriously explicitly religious (either sectarian or phrased in natural religion/political theology-type terms) arguments about homosexuality and gay marriage–its ethical and spiritual dimensions, or lack thereof–than I do those arguments which follow along the predominant Christian/social conservative claims about “traditional marriage” on the basis of what one of my faithful LDS friends once called (perhaps unfairly) “post hoc secular rationales.”

We are, for better or worse, a church committed to idea of revelation, an intervening God whose commands can, therefore, contravene our understanding of nature and tradition. (How many times did Joseph Smith essentially say, “If I told you everything God has told me, your world would shatter like glass”?) That being the case, it seems to me that the orthodox Mormon position is one which is open to the possibility that homosexuality poses a profoundly serious challenge to our moral condition, but which should be distrustful of anyone makes political arguments on the basis of defending any particular institutionalization of said moral condition. Of course, my use of the word “orthodox” is key there; as many have noted, orthodoxy is a moving target in Mormonism. It may well be that the revelatory worldview which I am attributing to Mormonism not only hasn’t been strong for quite some time, but may be officially passing. Certainly the recent language of Elder Ballard and others in condemning same-sex marriage has been drenched with ideas of naturalness and tradition; when we have arrived at the point that Mormon judges can unironically cite Reynolds v. United States in convicting polygamists, then perhaps we have, as a church and as a people, gotten to the point where we feel comfortable understanding ourselves as defending a moral continuity, rather than as posing revelatory challenges to it. Whether this means that the legacy of plural marriage (to say nothing of Joseph Smith’s involvement in polyandry) is going to be further marginalized in the church, or even be subject to more-or-less official revisionism (as has been the case in recent years regarding the at-one-time-prophetically-authenticated priesthood ban; consider how Armand Mauss, once considered a critic of the church, is now approvingly cited by those church defenders who want to put the “race issue” to rest), I can’t say. But however things develop, if Mormon orthodoxy really is changing in this regard, then perhaps we can, as a faith, make a socially conservative argument for “traditional marriage” after all.

Ok, that’s long enough. How’s that for a first post?

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One Response to My (Mormon) Hang-up with (Opposition to) Gay Marriage

  1. Adam Greenwood on March 25, 2004 at 3:16 pm

    It is possible that polygamy was a mistake or one of them crazy tests of faith or plain wrong, but I would prefer not to entertain those hypotheses. There are a couple of other options. Perhaps polygamy–in the form, say, of cross-linked marriages that tie a whole community together–is an essential part of the divine economy and needed to be restored to the modern Church, even if ultimately undesirable given our culture and traditions. Or perhaps polygamy is natural or traditional in a way that gay marriage is not.

    I can’t really address the argument for ‘nature’. It may well be that the arguments from ‘nature’ do exclude polygamy.

    I can address the argument from tradition. At least as I understand it, arguments from tradition presuppose that cultures and traditions have a sort of deep logic built into them that make big changes to fundamental institutions very unwise and destructive of the good. In the Burkean iteration, tradition is also a window to ‘nature,’ in that the collective wisdom of age long experience tells us deep truths about the human condition that we can’t access by our own reason and argument alone. These arguments are just presumptions, however. God can trump tradition because God knows the deep truths of the human condition with certainty. So in 1830 a Mormon can argue against gay marriage and polygamy and children being raised by their own parents and so on because of tradition. After 1850, a Mormon like me who doesn’t believe in excluding religious arguments from public discussion could say that revelation has excepted polygamy from the lessons that tradition teaches, and then point to the existence of polygamy in other societies and in the Biblical roots of our own tradition as some justification.